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When language learning isn’t showing progress

Someone asked this Question: “I have an Italian language student who improves extremely slowly. I have tried everything I can think of to support her learning progress, with no results. She is becoming frustrated and I don’t know what else to do. I have suggested that she take an additional tutor or learning system but she said she wants to study with me or she will give up studying Italian.” (You can swap Italian for any other language.)

Do you work with a course book? Can you revise an additional resource list that fits with the general themes and chapters of the course book. This list can include Youtube videos and children’s quizzes, comic book pages, graphic novel sections, multiple examples in different formats and different media of the same grammar or theme or vocabulary.

You can gather a list of material resources that compliment your existing lesson material over time. It will be useful for all students. 

Don’t try to move too fast if the foundation won’t stick. Make it feel ok to not do well. Remember that there are other benefits to language learning besides language fluency. It’s good for brain health and for lifelong confidence to keep trying even if the student doesn’t ‘succeed’. At Stanford they found that students who succeed easily develop less brain synapses than those who keep trying, irrespective of failure. Language learning is also a social experience, which is good on many levels including for mental health and expanding the student’s cultural horizon. 

You could encourage your student to save up and take a weekend trip (or a longer vacation) to Italy. Arm the student with a daily list of phrases to use. Day 1: 3 phrases for the supermarket. Day 2: 3 phrases for public transport. It again isn’t about being able to hold a conversation, it’s a suggestion aimed at breaking the barrier between the student and simply trying to apply the language irrespective of the outcome. Send them to the supermarket with a list of phrases. 

In fact you can send your student to their own local Italian Pizza restaurant or ice cream parlour with 3 phrases to say during the visit. Literally 3.
Having an experience of using the language, even if just 3 phrases is going to be a memorable event for them. The student will face challenges and will need to find courage. This experience might go well or show that one of the deeper problems to their language learning is fear. This is something you can work with.

I have experience from both sides. I teach languages and also tried learning Korean. In my own language learning journey I noticed that I started feeling too ashamed to continue because I made too little progress progress. On the other hand as a teacher I also have had a German language student who couldn’t pick the language up and I eventually I told them I felt bad for taking their money. In hindsight I now understand that I shouldn’t have done that. The student didn’t feel frustrated until I expressed my worry that I am not providing enough value. The student enjoyed trying.

Referencing this last example, be vigilant to not let your frustrations or concerns influence your students’ enjoyment and experience of their lessons with you. Be constant. Don’t use speed of learning as a metric to judge the success of your language lessons (as a teacher or student). The success can be that you are doing your best, that it is enjoyable, that it opens cultural pathways and imagination and more…

Bring the joy back. 
It’s ok to not do great.
It’s even ok to feel like hardly anything sticks. 
Enjoy the process.

Keep it simple. 
Aim lower first.

Maybe repeat a core concept for a small portion of every lesson until it sticks? Or just accept it might not. 

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