The Silent Barrier of Language Learning

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Language learning is always challenging, with the fear of making mistakes standing out as one of the barriers. The fear is often rooted in shame, signaling to language learners that they will face rejection in the form of judgment, invalidation, punishment, scolding, etc. This fear leads to students’ reluctance to embrace errors as stepping stones to fluency.  

The Role of Shame 

Shame is a powerful feeling that makes learners believe that they don’t want to be seen as they are at that moment. Shame is like fuel for the fire; it will make any situation combustible. When teachers fail to detect shame and only focus on the original goal, it can lead to heated situations in the classroom.  

Shame may also appear as indifference, numbness, or aloofness. Learners might be overwhelmed with shame, or they might have a traumatic experience of being ashamed when making mistakes. For instance, a student is called out in front of the class for the mistakes made in his/her writing. They might appear careless, ignorant or even disrespectful. In this scenario, shame acts as a subtle and insidious force, impeding their progress. 

Importance of Detecting Shame 

It is important for teachers to detect shame in an educational context. First, it allows teachers to adapt their teaching methodology, approaches and behaviours effectively. Second, it helps the learner feel secure and more open when encountering challenges. What you can do to help yourself and your learners is to take a step back and pause when you see shame surface. Shift your focus from merely correcting their mistakes to helping them feel safe and good inside. Acknowledge their feelings at the moment and take action accordingly afterward. In this way, you will be able to build trust and connect with your learners, fostering a growth mindset and averting academic declines. By doing so, we are helping our learners develop resilience and problem-solving skills. 

How to Detect Learner Shame 

Detecting learner shame is quite tricky and requires a lot of effort and observation. You will have to constantly watch for non-verbal signs that reflect emotional distress. Learners who consistently avoid situations where they might make mistakes or exhibit self-deprecating language may be experiencing shame. When you see a student refusing to answer your questions, you can deduce that at this moment, he/she may be feeling ashamed of themselves for potentially making mistakes.  

Perfectionism, fear of group settings, withdrawal from social interactions and disproportionate emotional reactions to mistakes are also indicative of shame. You may also have learners who are reluctant to be put in a group with their peers. Now you know why they behave in this way. You can act and help your learners by talking with them privately and fostering a supportive learning environment that encourages trust and a growth mindset. 

The next time you see your learners behaving in a disrespectful way or acting ignorantly, it might be because of self-shame. Instead of taking it personally and thinking they dislike you, try to understand where their feelings are coming from. 

Hello, my name is Bei Zhang. I am delighted to be part of the team to share my ideas and experience. I am currently working at Huron University College as an English Language Learning specialist. My job there is to help international students with their academic English language skills. I also teach ESL and LINC at Thames Valley District School Board, and ESL at London Language Institute, a private language school in London. I graduated in 2018 with a master’s degree in Education Studies from Western University, focused on applied linguistics and teacher education. I also have a background in human resources management. I hope that my unique perspective of teaching ESL in different educational systems can benefit the TESL Ontario Blog and our members.


4 thoughts on “The Silent Barrier of Language Learning”

  1. I find that I can break the ice with some students by speaking whatever languages I have learned (but have not practiced) to show students that I’ve also learned a language(s) but without practice you lose it or never improve. They usually giggle at my clumsy attempts at speaking their language and also mention that because I don’t like making mistakes, I don’t learn as quickly as I could. I tell them my mom can speak 5 languages fluently because she is not afraid to talk to anyone whenever she hears a language she knows being spoken.

    1. Thank you Irene!! This is awesome!! I’m going to try it out in my class!! (I’m currently learning French and I’ve been making a lot mistakes. Definitely an experienced mistake maker ;))

  2. This was an interesting article as we all come across students who are afraid to participate due to errors in grammar and pronunciation. I generally play a lot of language games in my class, and make them speak to each other on a daily basis through class surveys or questionnaires, and make sure that they are paired with someone who doesn’t speak their first language. These activities plus a lot of clapping, little gifts and appreciation go a long way to remove hesitation in spoken language skills. Thanks for sharing your experiences too!

    1. Thank you Anjum!! Thanks for sharing your lovely and inspiring story! I’ve been trying the similar strategies. Still, some students don’t want to jump out of their “comfort zone”. I guess, I’ll keep trying 🙂

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