“If I can speak German. Why can’t I speak it in class? Everybody speaks German but I can’t”

I had NEVER been this emotional in a class like I was today when my 8 year old pupil said these words to me with teary eyes.

The back story…

My pupil is a Nigerian who has been living in Germany for some time now. Before I became his teacher, his Nigerian mom had been doing her best to teach him German but became a little busy and decided to get a German teacher for kids- ME.

From my first lesson with him, I noticed that he had a good number of words in his vocabulary bank. He had learnt enough to speak German but wasn’t constructing sentences- Not that he couldn’t. He just dreaded making sentences and would rather give one word answers. “Welche Farbe hat die Tasche?” (What is the colour of the bag). His answer would be- “Rot!” (red) and not “Die Tasche ist rot” (The bag is red).

Again, it was not that he didn’t know how to speak German. He was just reluctant to.

So I got home one day after work and tried to evaluate myself (Yes! I do this all the time). Is my teaching boring? What am I doing wrong? Do I need to change my resource materials? I was certain that he always enjoyed our German online game sessions and of course the famous Steve und Maggie show (my reward system for good behavior). He was equally good in listening to this authentic German content. Listening and laughing through it, he’d tell me everything he heard in English. But why did he build this strong resistance to speaking? That’s what I didn’t know.

From my experience in Language pedagogy and child development, I knew not to put pressure on him to speak German as this would only make him dread it all the more. I could only continue to  give prompts where necessary.

Present day…

It was now time to describe objects using adjectives. Of course, there was no way he could give one word answers this time. He cringed. “Frau Love. I can’t” I encouraged him and told him I knew he could do it. And then he described a school bag. To my surprise he did it so well without any hint from me. “Wow! You are such a smart boy. Your German is so good” I said, with a huge smile.

It was then that I got the reply. “If I can speak German. Why can’t I speak it in class? Everybody speaks German but I can’t”

And then it occurred to me that even though many statistical reports show that immigrant children learn the language of the host country better than their parents, the journey to conversational fluency isn’t exactly easy for all children especially those who have to sit in a classroom filled with native speakers.

So my pupil who was usually cheerful, burst into tears. It was an online class and I couldn’t hold his hands neither could I give him a hug and tell him everything would be okay. But I stopped the lesson and we had a lengthy conversation. As I listened, I couldn’t rule out the possibility of him having Foreign Language Anxiety Syndrome although this is usually associated with adults as it is often said that children learn by observation and don’t feel any form of pressure when learning a second language.

A myth I had believed for a long time!

In my pupil’s case, I couldn’t exactly say where the pressure came from. It was either from the classroom or from his bilingual mom. In any case, I’m sure both parties meant well- They wanted him to speak German. However, for a better language learning experience, teachers and parents would need to identify the likely causes of Foreign Language Anxiety in young learners in order to avoid this.

Here are a few that I know of:

  • Teaching children exclusively in the target language without hints might cause FLA.
  • Correcting mistakes at the slightest opportunity.
  • Dwelling on grammar rules and exceptions.
  • Not using audio-visuals.
  • Not recognizing and rewarding their little efforts.
  • Having excessively long and boring periods of lessons without any engaging activity.

You are welcome to add yours to the list in the comment section. As for me, I’m off to looking for productive measures to help my eight year old pupil become hyper interested in learning and expressing himself in German.

My name is Love Anuforo. I create bilingual minds for a living!

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