On being a beginner language learner again

I have now attended three classes in Koine (New Testament) Greek in the space of 8 days. In that time I have had to come to grips with a completely new alphabet (learn the names of the letters, how to write them and pronounce them, diphthongs, breathings, punctuation, subscripts …), learn how to conjugate two different verb types, decline one type of noun and its corresponding definitive article and then read, translate (Greek to English and English to Greek), and write loads of sentences. There is also a long list of vocabulary to learn. The pace is relentless and I’m not sure I’ll keep up.

What I am finding very interesting though is my experience of being a language learner again. I have so much more empathy for the low level learners I have often taught, especially those for whom English means a completely different alphabet and script. I have watched some of my students painstakingly trying to form the English letters and write a word from left to right on a line. I have even given some of them children’s writing exercises to do, just for practice. Now I am struggling myself to remember and replicate all the little squiggles and curves in the Greek letters (and Greek is not that different from English really). The vocabulary seems almost impossible to learn too when there is no real visual reference (not yet anyway). I want to say ‘Stop!’ I need time to get all this into my head before we move on, but I’m not the only one in the class, and there is a syllabus to follow, exams to be ready for, so on we go.

Then there’s the classes: going through the exercises and picking on people to translate and explain the grammar of the next sentence in the list. Rather than listening to the explanation of the previous sentence, I’m on to the next one and trying to work it out in case it’s my turn! So, I’m more concerned about not making a complete fool of myself than what I could actually be learning. The cognitive exertion is huge and concentrating for even the 50 mins or so of class is tough – I found myself switching off when all the squiggles on the board became too much. It’s so easy to forget just how much effort is needed in those first stages of learning a language, how important clear board work is, how necessary something like pair work is to take the pressure off a little. Also just how much repetition of even the most simple things is needed at the beginning.

I just hope I remember all this when I next teach English to beginners 🙂

One comment

  • Thank you for sharing these reflections with us, Susan! Your post has really important implications for language teachers who teach beginning-level learners. This also made me think about and question my own learning and teaching practices 🙂