7.2 Students with aptitude
At the beginning of this book, I related the story of how my wife learned Dutch. Now I can tell you why she learned it so well without formal classes and without consciously understanding grammar. She seemed to somehow just absorb the language, without much effort on her part. She didn’t even keep a vocabulary notebook. She seemed to break all the rules of language learning that I had conjured up in my mind. How was this possible ?
Well, some do have it: aptitude. Some have a gift of learning languages that goes beyond any rational analysis. This gifting can override any other factors that may be in the way. Gifted learners are a pleasure to teach. They do not need long explanations. They start using new structures and newly learned vocabulary straightaway. They enjoy the process of learning another language and are keen to study. There is an ease in the way they go about it.
I had the pleasure of teaching a Chinese student whom I considered a genius in language learning. When he came to Australia, he had no English whatsoever. At that time, in the early 90s, the Australian government had decided to issue student visas to the Chinese and thousands of students came to Australia to learn English. For many the experience was much harder than they had expected, as their first language was so different from English. Some had limited education and hardly any study skills. They spoke Chinese constantly. It was hard going and challenging, but also very exciting.
My brilliant student was a quiet fellow and fairly shy. However, I started to notice that whenever everybody else had forgotten yesterday’s lesson, he remembered. He built up his knowledge step by step, consistently. Within a month he was well ahead of the rest of the class. After six months, when most students would still echo everything the teacher said, he was having conversations, simple but meaningful. Within a year, he had progressed to an intermediate level of proficiency. The last I heard of him, was that he had entered university in Australia, while all the classmates he had started with were still at beginning levels. This student had an amazing talent for English. His learning curve was a straight line up, whereas most people go through ups and downs quite a few times before they level out or plateau.
Gifted or not, most learning curves go over mountains and through valleys before the learner has actually internalised the language. I remember clearly at the time I was learning French and later Australian English, there were times when I woke up in the morning and knew I could not speak the language at all. It was as if it had all just disappeared from my mind. I was distraught the first time this happened, but after a while I realised it was part of the process. I would come out of this state of amnesia after a day or two and could start the next curve up.
The length of time of ups and downs may differ from person to person. To explain this phenomenon to your students always meets with great recognition and relief. It puts their hearts at peace, as they realise it is natural. It happens in most learning. Remember learning to drive a car. There were lessons that ran so smoothly that you thought you were ready to take your driving test and then suddenly the next time you just lost it and everything seemed to go wrong. It’s natural. You know that you are reaching proficiency when these ups and downs stop. You can still improve but progress is steady now.
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