Something that I have struggled with for the last ten years as an ESL teacher has been whether or not to properly inform my students about the implications of studying a new language. There seems to be a prevalent preconception among many ESL students that learning to speak English is easier than say, learning the subjects in a college level math course.
To many, abstract subjects like theoretical mathematics or computer programming are obviously more difficult than linguistic subjects. There may be some truth to this concept. However, these courses are often very specific in scope, last anywhere from thirty-two to ninety hours, and require students to simply “remember” and maybe “apply” what they learn. Even though it is a common practice to segment English language programs by level of ability, say levels 1 to 5, or like the CLB, 12 levels in total, these courses are often far from adequate in providing enough time to properly “learn” the content of these levels.
I used to teach a full-time, 600-hour, government funded ESL program for unemployed adults. Many of them would arrive on the first day with the concept in mind that they would be fluent by course’s end. In order to properly align this misconception, I would quote the TOEIC exam’s requirements as well as the amount of time required to “level up” on the TOEIC. By doing so, I thought I was properly informing them, providing a certain strategy for reaching their goals, and asking them to revisit their preconceptions of what is possible in a 600-hour course. To my dismay, half the class would then frown, shoulders would slump, and motivation would nearly cease to exist.
Running the numbers
The TOEIC takes about 3000 hours in total to master. From a score of 0 to a score of 999, most students will require more than 3000 hours to become “fluent”, if they ever reach this level. Moreover, from a score of 0 to 100, it takes about 150 hours of total study time. However, from a score of 700 to 800, it might take up to 750 hours. As learners improve, improving takes more time.
Facing harsh realities
I quickly understood that for students who were logical/operational in learning approach, this information was well received. However, for those who were more emotionally inclined, this was completely demoralizing. They just could not handle the truth. Of course, they had a lot invested in learning English, from finding employment as soon as possible to being able to get that promotion at work – next month!
The truth will set you free
I still struggle with this. As a logical/operational style of person/teacher, I know that it is very important to be equipped with the truth in order to properly align your study time and style. Why waste hours poring over grammar worksheets when what students really need is to get out there and practice speaking? The TOEIC even mentions that the 3000 hours required does not mean typical “study” time, but “practice” time, speaking with colleagues, writing diaries, watching movies and listening to music. Studying English can be fun! But it is definitely not easier than learning math.
In fact, the main goal of second language acquisition (SLA) is not really the “acquisition” of language, but more so the development of immediate and authentic biological ability to spontaneously produce correct and meaningful language. This is a major endeavour, especially in a 600-hour intensive program.
So, I turn this over to you, kind reader. Can students handle the truth?