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New Language, New Soul (2009 Essay Contest)
New Language, New Soul (2009 Essay Contest)
  Date: 2009-11-24 01:18     View: 2573  


New Language, New Soul

- Nurturing Students’Unique Linguistic Personalities in English

Dale William Coker

DuckMun Middle School(Busan)


Ms. Kim usually sat in the back of the classroom, pouring over her English textbook whilst fending off the occasional verbal harassment of the more popular students. Her choice of seats reflected her shy demeanor, and her focus on her textbook honed her affection for a subject that transported her outside of her normal introversion. Ms. Kim’s self-imposed solitude was blithely shed when called upon in English class. Her morose demeanor crumbled into a strident, high-volume personality that glibly expressed its strong opinions and career goals. This marked transformation repeated itself during each English class. In English, Ms. Kim projected a more impassioned character that could be misconstrued as egotistical and a little too determined ? in direct contrast to the other Ms. Kim. What explains this change?

Psycholinguistics offers some insight. Learning a new language sometimes means learning a new personality as well. Five distinct "foreign language personalities or identities"and strategies for nurturing the same are outlined below. The five personalities to be discussed are the "break-out" personality, the "edutainment" personality, the "cross-cultural fascination" personality, the "stealth" personality, and the "dreamy" personality.

Students of foreignlanguages fuse their perceptions or imaginative visualizations of an exotic culture into their use of the newly acquired language. New linguistic identities can emerge, with a student’s personality in the second language being somewhat or definitively different from the student’s personality in her or his native tongue. This second linguistic identity can be unconscious, but some students relish escaping the restrictions of their normal personalities and languages into an alternative self rife with creative possibilities. Such was the case for my student, Ms. Kim.

The example of my student, Ms. Kim, illustrates the desire of some students to utilize a foreign language as a means of breaking out of the bonds of their normal personalities. Emboldened with a desire to be someone different, a student slips into an altered mental culture when speaking another language because they embrace a different persona. Holidays provide physical escapes that underscore the desire for mental retreats from stressful realities, just as switching gears into another language and culture can be a metaphoric vacation and release from self-imposed pressures. Students who undergo personality transformations when speaking other languages should be encouraged because their new persona is a key motivating factor in their foreign language production.

Teachers can facilitate this personality "break-out" in three ways. Foremost, a psychologically astute teacher can delineate what’s different from the native language and foreign language personalities and draw out the foreign language personality with the right questions or exercises. For example, the demure Ms. Kim seemed to enjoy being raucous in English. That exuberant self-confidence could be nurtured with provocative questions about things liked and disliked as well as opinions about controversial, popular culture icons. If the teacher can catch onto what it is that the student likes about their second linguistic personality and encourage that affection, then infinite language production will ensue. Excessive and impressive language production can result in a sense of pride that a good teacher can channel back into the native language personality. A teacher/student role reversal can facilitate this process. By asking the student to assist the teacher in learning some Korean soon after the student’s "break-out personality" has been evoked, the student’s confidence in their native language and personality can be increased.

Secondly, most foreign language teachers in Korea are painfully aware of their "edutainment"value in the classroom. This launch into the realm of fun and the modern media is another linguistics personality akin to the Korean nighttime television variety shows. Teachers should encourage students’ silliness to engender more language production. Foreign faces combined with foreign and domestic popular culture ranging from movies to music elicit endlessly animated reactions from students. However goofy "edutainment" might become in the classroom, it can provoke a tremendous quantity of language production from students.

Occasionally, a student will blurt out a tidbit of deep cultural knowledge during an "edutainment"session that can enthrall even the most seasoned teacher. During a class on describing one’s favorite famous person, one of my male students presented an eloquent monologue tracing Al Pacino’s character development. Such insight coming from a middle school student gives a teacher pause! When students hand a teacher a diamond in the rough like the Al Pacino comment,a skilled teacher can coax advanced language production focused on the student’s interest for weeks to come.    

 The tried and true methods for making students chatty through "edutainment"are well-worn. Teachers have often used pictures of Korean and international pop stars to stimulate conversation using assorted grammar and dialogue structures. Singing songs, describing famous people, and even checking for understanding of current movies all plug students into the popular culture in which they immerse themselves. These conversations lighten the classroom mood and shift students into a nighttime variety show host mode.

Yet these well-known, general methods do not bring out a student’s "edutainment"personality in precise terms. My Al Pacino-adoring student deserved the chance to solve his own crime dramas. Role-playing a murder mystery to teach legal vocabulary can inspire not only potential Italian-American detectives, but also an unknown cadre of crime drama-watching students. Asking students to serve as a marketing agent for their own newly-created actor or actress can catapult them into their best "edutainment" personalities as well. Some students create new characters based on a m?lange of famous people whom they admire, and others get really creative by sketching a bizarre superwoman (or man) that seems to have come from an anime series. Pushing students into their "edutainment" personality requires the creative weaving of popular culture that students like into academically-sound, topical lesson plans.

 The third kind of linguistic personality shift can be morally delicate. Many Korean students are fascinated when seeing a living Westerner who might have only been a figment of their television imagination in the past. This is the "cross-cultural fascination/ amorous"linguistic personality. Students might discuss the length of a foreign teacher’s nose or even declare their love for a foreign teacher repeatedly and loudly. These kinds of reactions should not be encouraged because prodding students’ romantic affections can be immoral and, worse, illegal. Yet the strong reaction to teachers’ physical appearances and foreign status represents a linguistic personality shift because students desperately want to communicate with the new "alien" present in the target language. The different teacher-creature can seem electric and, therefore, foreign teachers can exploit this interest in moral ways to get students invested in "getting to know you" conversations.

 The foreign teacher’s unique presence alone can inspire language production. Structured lessons are useful learning tools, but foreign teachers mustering the energy to respond to every enthusiastic greeting from students wandering the hallways will have much more success with their structured lessons as well. The foreign teacher’s presence in different school situations draws out students’ "entranced with the exotic"linguistic personality and serves multiple, positive language-learning ends. Talking to students between classes or to students who are pursuing different activities around the school puts students at ease when conversing with foreigners while introducing activity-relevant vocabulary. With increased self-confidence about talking to foreigners, students learn the social skills necessary to welcome and effectively deal with those from other cultures. This form of conversation, however rudimentary, is more natural than any conversation produced in the classroom. A friendly foreigner who is willing to fully engage students in normal conversation helps foment a student’s international, cosmopolitan linguistic personality. More linguistic and cultural exploration will likely ensue, the more that a foreigner speaks to students under these circumstances.

 The fourth linguistic personality shift is the "self-revelation by stealth" identity. Slipping in critical, revelatory information in a foreign language more often than in the native language is a surprising phenomenon that has been repeated in my classrooms over the years. Three anecdotal, unfortunately unscientific, examples will help clarify this anomaly. A student who rarely revealed anything about his personal interests suddenly emerged as an expert on world geography in a class on nations and nationalities. Another female student who normally retreated from studying entirely became magically obsessed with the English dictionary and had the most impressive vocabulary of any student. A third student who was close to becoming her class valedictorian begged for a separate class to study German along with her friend because they both liked the idea of the European welfare state. This fourth "stealth" linguistic personality permits students to sneak into arenas of intellectual interest that they kept to themselves or did not permit others to notice before. The English-speaking classroom sometimes induces these self-revelations for highly specific reasons. The previously mentioned future cartographer had been studying world maps in English because he wanted to attend Busan’s Maritime University. He had not had the opportunity to reveal his knowledge of the world in Korean. The "dictionary girl" had a seemingly genetic talent for memorizing the English dictionary with an ease that was not evident in her Korean language classes. Finally, the northern European welfare state had captured the imagination of two potentially brilliant, young sociologists. Learning German became an outlet for this interest.

 Once revealed, the "stealth" linguistic personality is easy to dissect. Teachers can serve students’proclaimed areas of interest by building lesson plans around those subjects. For truly devoted students, offering a taste of the subject matter that they might end up pursuing at the undergraduate level can whet an academic appetite. The level of difficulty might seem extreme, but underestimating the power of personal interest can also be an error. The aforementioned dictionary-obsessed student consumed the game "Pictionary"with a special ravenousness. The amateur world geography student spent hours with a series of English-language political and topographical maps, provided by his teacher. Teaching the two, young academics German motivated them to continue reading about European sociology in Korean or English and inspired them to spend time with German and Northern European folklore texts. 

 Finally, the last linguistic personality rests in the language of dreams. Images, feelings, memories, and sensations fold into students’sentiments about encounters with the foreign and foreign languages as well. One student told me that the pastoral, rolling green hills of England that were dotted with little stone houses from which smoke curled enamored her so much that she fell in love with England. That visualization helped carry her through years of tedious English-language study. Other former students of mine who devoted themselves to learning Swedish and English with the aim of moving to the Nordic countries reminisced about stylish Swedish men and women trotting through a snow-covered but neatly organized Stockholm. Another meticulous student found the diverse cultures and innovative ideas in Northern California enticing enough to perfect his English so that he could earn a place in a San Franciscan university.

 These dreamscapes are similar to the "stealth" linguistic personality in their exceptional obviousness, although the "dreamy"personality is rooted in feelings and not intellectual endeavor. Providing San Francisco university brochures to the future student or viewing Scandinavian movies like "Smilla’s Sense of Snow" to facilitate language learning could inspire these students further. Exploring dreams and literary writings using descriptive adjective vocabulary is another method for plumbing the subconscious yearnings that push students to acquire a new language. Trying something whacky like Indian "laughing"yoga in your class followed by creative writing or speaking activities puts students in the mood to be emotionally creative and expand their "dream"personality to cover new territories.

 Five different kinds of linguistic identities or shifts have been described that represent my classroom experiences of the new, foreign-language speaking personalities that students sometimes assume. More reserved students might deem a foreign language the vehicle to "break out" of the bonds of their current personalities. Popular culture and "edutainment" can inspire students to shift into hyper-drive and become somewhat hyperactive when speaking English. Third, the romantic allure of the exotic embodied in a foreigner can evoke all kinds of language production that teaches students how to express their curiosity about a foreigner without transgressing the boundaries of good morality. As vague as they might seem, the "stealth" and "dreamy"linguistic personalities are sometimes the easiest for a teacher to assist because they either accidentally divulge or poetically create what intereststhem about learning a foreign language. Psycholinguists have observed that these diverse linguistic personalities can be teased out with psychological inventories that test a subject’s response to the same scenario in two different languages. A "personality shift"phenomenon when students speak in different languages has been academically verified, and this can be observed in Korean classrooms when students try to explain and emote in English. Some of the simple techniques outlined in this essay can amplify the power of students’English-language personalities. Such small psychological insights into the emotional dimensions of learning English can sustain student motivation over many years and even germinate the seeds of personality growth.

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