Not Understanding Is Fine: Teaching English


One of the first things you realize when you teach a language is that you don’t really understand what the heck is going on. And that’s okay, especially if you’re a learner.

Teaching English

I’ve been teaching languages in some form or other for the past four years. By any account, that’s not a great amount of time. It’s not. Even in this field, which has a fairly high rate of attrition. 40% of England’s teachers quit before five years are up. 50% of America’s. 98% of English-teaching foreigners in Japan don’t stay more than five years here. I can’t find the source for that one, but I’d put money on it. I had to present on the topic in the past.

When I first began teaching, I was irresponsible. I knew the material I had to teach and I knew what the students needed to do to succeed. Sadly, this didn’t translate to being able to convey the material well. As much as I knew the words and grammar, explanations were more difficult. Explain the word “difficult” or the difference between “will” and “going to”. Though now it’s easy enough, I couldn’t manage either in the beginning. As a result, my students often left not understanding.

That’s not good.

As a teacher, you should always be able to explain your material. Perhaps in two or three different ways, if one isn’t good enough. Never accept “that’s just how it is”. “That’s just how it is” doesn’t help students remember it. There’s a reason it became that way. Even if there isn’t, there’s more to teaching than explanations. Maybe that is just “how it is”, but you can still give them more to latch on to.

Your job as a teacher is threefold: to teach others how to learn, to bring materials to their attention, and to explain concepts that they struggle with. When students need an explanation, you can’t fail with that explanation. Explanations are an important facet of your job. If they don’t understand, that’s bad.

However, an important part of language education is understanding that you can’t understand everything. Furthermore, as a teacher, it is important to teach your students this.

How Do You Interact With Languages?

Think about your native language. When someone says something and you didn’t hear them or weren’t paying attention, what do you do? Do you give up and walk away? Most people wouldn’t do that. Instead, they jump back. “Uh huh,” they might utter, so that the speaker continues talking. “Wait, what?” or “What do you mean?” they might ask, so the speaker has to rephrase what they said (i.e. say it again).

When people learn a foreign language, however, they often care too much about what they don’t understand. They want to know all the words in a sentence. If they’re missing a single word, they’re convinced they missed the whole point. Maybe they did, but does that matter? People miss the point all the time. It’s how conversations switch topics ad nauseum. On the whole, people are bad at both speaking and listening, especially when they’re doing both at the same time.

Ironically, when they’re learning a new language, they tend to get caught up on words they don’t know. As native speakers, however, we pass over recondite words all the time. Individual words don’t matter to us. If they do, we ask about them. Does this lady have an amazing knowledge of English vocabulary? Probably not. Is she a native speaker. Definitely. (Not that I would have her teach English, mind you.)

The problem is, language classes often prepare students to look up everything they don’t know. If students want to do this, cool. But it gets in the way when it’s required. If students took the haphazard view that native speakers took, they’d get a huge working vocab effortlessly. After that, they can hone their craft with classroom language and grammar. There is a place for grammar instruction. It’s after students have a ton of input and practice making sense of things themselves.

In other words, students need to be put in lots of situations where they don’t understand things.

Not without help, of course. As a teacher, there’s a lot you can do. You give them skills to wade through this darkness.

Some of My Personal Tips to Students:

To understand:

  • Why are they talking? Especially in TV, they usually have a point.
  • Are they interacting with an object? That’s probably important. “To be or not to be…”
  • What words are coming up? What do those words often relate to?
  • (With English) Focus less on grammar and more on word length. What words were emphasized? “What are YOU doing?”

It all boils down to: Look at the situation. Infer.

To converse:

  • People understand you even without correct grammar. Spit out words.
  • Get good at talking about one or two topics. Steer conversations to those.
  • Did you understand a single word they said?
  • If you did, expand off that word. What do you know about that topic?

  • If you didn’t, ask them “What do you mean?” or some variant.

It’s more important to keep a conversation moving than to understand.

One Hard Part

Often, this isn’t a skill that Japanese people have ever been taught. English teachers sometimes perceive a task as too difficult. In fact, from their perspective, they’re right. It’s simply a differing set of goals. Keep that in mind when trying activities that help to make sense of material “too difficult for students of their level”.


P.S. Thought Exercise:

How would you have students deal with this movie scene?

What're ya thinkin'?

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