Imagine that you are working as an ESL teacher at a university. Specifically, you are working with international students who are trying to complete their English language proficiency in order to study for their Ph.D.
These students are without a doubt intelligent. They all have a master degree. However, despite their talent and abilities, they are still babies when it comes to fluency in English. The students become exceedingly frustrated as they have to be reduced to such an elementary experience of drills and skits in order to be prepared for graduate studies. In order to achieve their dream, they must develop an identity in the English language.
To make an even stronger example, imagine you are an English teacher in your country where English is a Foreign Language and have been teaching English for years. You decide to go for a Ph.D. in an English speaking country. You take the TOEFL or IELTS and the results indicate that you need to take ESL courses before you can study. Here you are, an experienced English teacher back home, sitting through intermediate/advanced ESL courses. This is a serious but common wake up call for many non-native ESL teachers with advanced degree aspirations.
This experience frustration and fragility as one learns a new language is called language ego. This post will define language ego as well as strategies for making this experience more tolerable for students.
Defining Language Ego
Language ego is a sense of inferiority as one tries to learn a new language. People are excellent at communicating in their own language and communicate boldly in it. This confidence in one’s native language makes one highly resilient in one’s mother tongue. This why native speaker’s often ignore comments on how to communicate in the target language when these comments come from non-native speakers and even from native-speakers. We all know our own language and care little for feedback from others
However, this confidence, stubbornness, and resilience disappear when learning another language. Now, it is common for people to become defensive and sensitive as they try to communicate with limited tools.
This experience only becomes worst as one gets older. Children already have limited cognitive ability compared to adults so when they communicate in a new language they have much lower expectations in terms of talking and communicating. For adults, who often have complex, abstract ideas to share, it is frustrating to have to be reduced to speaking about mundane topics in a second language.
Helping Student with Language Ego
In order to support students during this experience, it is important to remember the following points.
- The task should be challenging but not overwhelming. This is a general concept in education but much more important in language teaching. Excessive failure will destroy the fragile ego of many ESL students.
- Different students will struggle in different ways. This means a teacher should be strategic in terms of who they call on, correct publicly, the level of toughness, etc. as all of these decisions will affect students in different ways.
- Acknowledging the frustration as the students learn the language can also help with coping.
Learning a language involves changes to one’s self. This means that the ego is often threatened when acquiring a language. The intensity of this is only increased when one learns a language as an adult when compared to a child. As such, teachers need to support adults and children during this experience.