I Give Up! – Techniques to Keep These Words Out of Your ESL Students’ Mouths

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I give up! Learning a second language is a waste of time!

Have you felt this way? Then you are certainly part of the 95% of the students who attended a traditional second language program. According to evidence collected by James Asher[1], who developed a methodology called Total Physical Response, only 5% of the students who start the study of a second language continue on to achieve fluency in speaking, reading and writing. Why? Maybe boredom, lack of motivation, different learning styles…But what about our first language? We never had to study or learn it! We just “picked it up,” magically. Is there any way we could imitate this process and just “pick up” a second language?The secret lies in the difference between acquisition and learning. The first one is an unconscious process. The child does not hypothesize about language. It won’t help to know the rules of the past perfect to get that child to speak. And because they’re different, symbolic language is governed by different parts of the brain.  Acquisition involves the right brain, while learning involves the left brain.Look at the following chart:

Right brain Left brain
Logical – sequential Random
Rational Intuitive
Analytical Holistic – Synthesizing
Objective Subjective
Looks at parts Looks at whole


So while traditional language classes involve the right brain, other language learning researchers found different left-brain options. For example, instead of translating paragraphs or memorizing dialogues, we need our ESL students to comprehend before speaking. Instead of just processing information with our left brain, analyzing and recognizing patterns, and making sure our speech is error-free, we want to develop some fluency as well.

Let’s think of it this way: we are walking down the hallway and pass right by the kindergarten room. Every single kid is singing, dancing, playing and having fun. We keep going, and pass by an advanced Spanish class. Every single student is repeating verb conjugations, looking bored, and probably thinking “I wonder when the bell’s gonna ring!” So as English teachers, maybe it’s time to get our class up and moving and give it a change of pace!

Total Physical Response

Back to acquisition, let’s think of some of the very first things we learned: “walk to mommy” or “don’t touch that!” Complete chunks of language, “conversations” where there is a speaker and someone who responds. But this response is not lexical. It does not involve words. The child is involved silently. This is called the “silent period.” Basically, students should not be expected to respond before their cognitive ability to do so. This only creates frustration and gets rid of motivation. The classic “I give up! Foreign languages are not my thing.”So let’s do some brain switching: instead of verbal responses, let’s get some action from our students! Get them up and moving. Teach them commands, such as “walk to the board” or “open your book” and have them do it. Perform the actions rather than express them.

So think about it: whenever you have to teach language connected with actions, classroom language, imperatives, instructions, etc, try this out. It’s fun, memorable, it changes the pace and involves a different approach to learning. It allows more creativity, as English students are using their right brain, and it works great for kinaesthetic learners who need to move around!

[1] Language By CommandThe Total Physical Response approach to learning language by James J. Asher

February 4, 2011