Motivating Students to Remember

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Is she driving my accuracy in Korean? (Photo by bradburyjason on Flickr)

I’m often surprised by how little my students remember, or at least remember to apply, especially when it comes to grammar morphology, such as the third person singular -s. I’m going to avoid debating its communicative importance here, suffice to say that while its easy to get by without it, my students’ sporadic use of it suggests that they are aware of it, want to use it and are simply forgetting more often than not, rather than taking a conscious decision not to use it. It’s led me to wonder quite why they do it.

Errors tend to occur in many different contexts, both written and spoken, and in controlled and freer speaking activities. This means that it can’t always be put down to a heavy cognitive load, or a reduced ability to check one’s own output (especially where writing is concerned). I suspect that a major influence is its lack of communicative importance; it really little more than a showy accoutrement to a verb, but nevertheless it’s part of the language and one that my students use to some degree.

At the moment I’m making some progress with trying to learn Korean. I’m around an intermediate level, and I’m able to say a lot of what I want to these days. I’m always acutely aware that lurking at the end of the sentence is the verb, and a whole lot of morphological gymnastics. Korean is an agglutinating language, which essentially means that whenever you get to a verb there’s a glut of possible suffixes to add for tense, aspect, politeness or deference to the interlocutor, honor to the referent (even if not present), negation, voice, exclamation, conjunction and a million other things. On the whole I think I do ok at handling most of this, and I mostly remember to include everything, and without wishing to be immodest tend to do it better than most of my students, again, I wonder why.

The big difference between my students and I is one of situation. They are learning English as a foreign language, whereas I guess I’m learning Korean as a second language. Mine is hardly an immersion setting though, my work, studies and a fair chunk of my social life is still conducted in English. I’d say I don’t spend much, if any, more time studying and practicing Korean than my students do English, yet I seem to get better results, particularly in terms of accuracy.

There are clearly a number of reasons for this, not least that as a language teacher I have a greater fondness for accuracy than most. I think that the biggest reason that I retain things is that when I come across something new in Korean, particularly where grammar is concerned, a thought crosses my mind that goes something like “Oh bloody hell, I’m actually going to have to use that next time I speak to someone. Come on brain!” This actually seems to work quite well for me, and I think that it’s not so much the communicative importance that drives it so much as simply the possibility. It’s clear though that my setting helps a great deal; this possibility could occur next time I go to the shops, take a taxi, next time my phone rings, or next time I’m introduced to someone. For me, thinking about this its an easy task. In fact, I barely think about it at all, it’s just a part of my life.

The real question then is can I get my EFL students into the same mindset, and how? Having spent several hundred words setting this up, I now don’t really have space to expound any of my ideas about this, and I’d also be interested to hear your thoughts or strategies for achieving it. If you’d like to contribute something, leave it as a comment or tweet it to me, and I’ll put everything together into a lovely big part two blog post and give you full credit.

I’m looking forward to hearing your opinions. Until then…

Cheers,

Alex

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