A question for discussion

Laura, a blog-reader from the Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation, writes with the following question, which I would love to open up for discussion:

 I would like to know some ways that your group is encouraging speaking of the language.  Our biggest challenge is getting our people, young and old, to have the courage to actually speak it.  They are too afraid to make a mistake and get embarrassed, even my own children.

For our collaborators in Listuguj: do you see a similar problem there? For everyone: what are ways we can facilitate speaking? How can we help create safe spaces where people can practice speaking, without worrying about feeling embarrassed? What are strategies other readers have used to overcome feeling embarrassed when learning a new language? What can fluent speakers to to help?

5 thoughts on “A question for discussion

  1. A couple of things that I’ve done or heard of being done to start off the discussion, in no particular order.

    One thing that I find helpful is to know some things you can say when you don’t know what to say. So for example, knowing how to say “that thing” so you can point when you don’t know the word for something, or “I didn’t hear you” or “I understand you, I’m just not sure how to reply” or “Um, you see, the thing is…” and so on. Sometimes just having a few generic words or phrases you can fall back on while you think of what you really want to say is really useful.

    Another idea is finding an environment with other learners and not fluent speakers (except maybe a teacher). It’s often easier to understand other less-fluent speakers because they probably talk slower and are more likely to use basic words. The other thing is that because everyone is learning you are all going to make mistakes so that’s hopefully less scary.

    Something else I do, and maybe it makes me crazy, but I think it’s helpful, is to talk to myself in the language I’m trying to get better at. If no one’s around, then no one can judge me for making mistakes and I get to repeat myself or correct myself and it doesn’t matter. (You could also try talking to a baby or a pet or imagining someone to talk to. Or think of a conversation you tried to have in the language and think about what you wish you’d said, so if it comes up again you can be prepared). It’s not exactly like a conversation with a real person, but you get some practice making sounds and putting words together and trying to express complete ideas.

    When I took Spanish in high school, after we’d been learning it for about a year, the teacher instituted a classroom rule that we were only allowed to speak Spanish in the classroom and if you spoke any English, you had to put a quarter (per word, maybe?) in a jar that eventually went to charity. I’ve also heard of French programs where people sign up to speak only French and if they get caught speaking English they get some sort of three-strike warning that they’ve agreed to in advance. A lot of people also try to go somewhere where people only speak the language they’re learning, so their only option is to figure out how to speak it.

    This may be too extreme for our purposes, but I think there’s a common idea there that it’s hard to get in the habit of speaking a new language and can take a lot of willpower, so sometimes people find it useful to decide to “outsource” their willpower by agreeing to a set of rules or a situation that forces them to speak the language. Particularly when everyone knows that everyone else has also agreed to this, you know that everyone else is with you on it. So that’s another angle.

  2. A lot of what Gretchen mentioned also makes sense to me! Erin and Jacob and I were also talking about maybe going out for Mi’gmaq walks–take a hike in the woods and try to speak only in Mi’gmaq, or at least take it as an opportunity to practice outside a classroom, but still with fluent speakers nearby.

    Ah, and I just wanted to add one thing from my own experiences; this year I was taking a class in my roommate’s native language, and she really encouraged me to practice it with her. One of the most helpful things that she did was simply praise me for speaking it! If you’re a native speaker trying to help a learner, it’s really easy to focus on the slip-ups, or the bad accent (in fact, it’s often hard to get beyond those things if the person’s accent is very thick). But for a learner, conversations full of corrections can start to be a little mortifying, and might discourage them from using the language. My roommate made a real point of saying how nice it was to hear me trying, and suggested that if I asked her for a favour, I was ten times more likely to get it if I asked in the language! It might be a simplistic strategy, but in my case it really worked well; it made me happier to use the language, and more eager to show off new things I learned over the course of the year.

  3. These sound like good points!

    We’ve also been discussing this in our CAN-8 meetings so we can incorporate some of this into proposed lessons. Some of the ideas we’ve come up with include, like Gretchen said, early teaching of useful phrases like “Could you please repeat that?” or “Could you say that slower?” so that learners can more easily interact with speakers outside of the classroom.

    And on embarrassment about speaking – this is probably the number one obstacle to learning a language (or learning anything). We all go through it at some point! I think the best thing to counteract it would be to tell learners that it’s ok to make mistakes. You could point out that even native speakers sometimes make mistakes – I know I make mistakes in English all the time, and it’s my first language.

    Another thing to counteract embarrassment, I think, is for speakers to be patient with learners – let the learner finish a thought, then, if necessary, the speaker can correct the worst mistakes. That way, the learner knows you’ve understood them in the language despite their errors.

    I hope this was helpful!

  4. Without a doubt, “imperfect-speaker shame” is one of the core obstacles to language revitalization.

    It starts, I think, as a feedback effect. As the language is less and less widely used, younger generations have less and less exposure, and so can’t possibly acquire and use it in the way older generations did and do.

    Unfortunately, their performance is rarely judged with that understanding. Older/more fluent speakers cannot help but pick up and comment on the many ways younger/less fluent speakers diverge from their norms.

    In a thriving speech community, laughing at people’s variation from the norm is likely one way that the speech community maintains a healthy, practical limit on individual variation. But when the speech community is stressed, it can suddenly turn into a mechanism that encourages imperfect speakers to opt out entirely. Which in turn shrinks the speech community—and/or: the spaces and times where it is okay to speak the language—even further, which in turn speeds up the whole feedback effect that much more.

    In particular, even fluent speakers may end up speaking less, in that some may shift more often to English in order to avoid putting others into this sort of potentially embarrassing situation.

    I honestly think that the key way to address this problem is to find ways to make people consciously aware of this dynamic—crucially, both personally and as a group. This phenomenon controls people’s choices in large part because it operates subconsciously/reflexively. Becoming aware of it doesn’t automatically solve the problem for people, but it does give them a chance not to get jerked around by it.

    Assuming people become aware of this sociolinguistic reflex, the next step is developing ways to catch it, to nip it in the bud, whenever it starts to pop up. A big part of this will come from understanding the distinct contributions of all the participants to dynamic as a whole.

    First is to look at are the ways fluent speakers (generally unintentionally) react critically to imperfect speakers, and even to errors among themselves. Knowing this, how can fluent speakers then adjust their natural reactions/commentary very consciously and thoughtfully in order to not subtly push less fluent speakers into shame and ultimately out of the speech community? Reframing this as a case of injustly shaming the innocent should help, I think.

    Second to look at are the ways that imperfect speakers and/or learners internalize and personalize shame about their levels of speech. I.e. that they blame themselves (I was lazy, I didn’t listen, I’m stupid) rather than seeing it as a natural outcome of their different linguistic environment, i.e. not their own fault. Crucial here is for them to identify how they cope with their currently limited performance by withdrawing and avoiding the situations that will put them at risk of “linguistic embarrassment”—the same situations that are really the only way they can ever hope to improve beyond their current level. From there, they can start to catch that automatic reflex of embarrassment and shame, and then talk themselves out of it and back into the conversation. Perhaps in part by knowing that they can bring it up explicitly with the sympathetic/understanding fluent speaker.

    Again, powerful and tangling as it is, the actual phenomenon is not really that complex in its broad strokes—and everyone has had personal experiences of it.

    The key thing, I think, is to help everyone get together and talk it out, so that when it rolls around in real-life language situations, everyone on all sides of the equation can point back to that talk and—this will sound oversimplified, but I think it gets to the crucial point—lighten up on each other and especially on themselves.

  5. One further crucial point (I know, I overuse “crucial” like mad): the phenomenon hinges not just around the individual (i.e. learners feeling bad about their performance), but around the *interaction* between the learner and the fluent speaker. Hence it may not simply be an across-the-board “don’t worry about mistakes, since everybody makes them” kind of advice that will do the trick, but instead, something that will help them feel comfortable with the specific fluent speakers they are working with.

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