Can’t handle the truth?


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.

Deflating dreams?

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?

Greetings to all my TESL colleagues at large! My name is Greg De Luca: ESL instructor extraordinaire, education advisor, program developer, innovative researcher in SLA, progressive rock drummer, amateur novelist, decent critic of fine whiskey – and last but not least, a somewhat dejected father of two princess-obsessed toddlers. Self-glorification and whining aside, my goal as guest blogger will be, first and foremost, to promote discussion about the best practices involved in teaching and learning as well as to provide succinct instructional strategies for your teaching practice. My TESL-ing began in Japan in 2004 after graduating from Concordia University’s Creative Writing program. Upon my return to Canada in 2006, I was promptly hired as an ESL instructor for several government-funded, full-time ESL programs at Champlain College Saint-Lambert in Quebec. I recently took on a new role as Education Advisor after obtaining my M.Ed., where I am helping our teachers cope with the challenges of adult instruction.


One thought on “Can’t handle the truth?”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with you on this subject. Students seem to have high expectations when they embark on English language courses (be it LINC, ESP, EAP and IEP level courses). It is a nature of students, in general, I find, as they have no idea how broad the spectrum of language is. In other words, it’s a big open space of a plethora of strata. Even I struggle to realize this as a language learner myself. I set high expectations to learning a language in the least amount of time. How can a student acquire the language in the least amount of time? That’s a big mystery question? In my opinion, there are so many facets attached to learning, such as the individual competencies, time availability, learner setting and motivation is a big factor. Of course, there are other facets to consider in this immense undertaking for one to become fluent and confident in applying the language.
    A great provocative subject and read! Thanks.

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