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  • Writer's pictureKatie Welch, Ph.D.

Breaking the “Curse of Knowledge”

When an ESL Teacher Vacations Abroad

Five language learning insights from my recent trip to Paris, France

Thanks to a last-minute change of plans at my husband’s work, I was able to accompany him on a quick trip to Paris, France that neither of us had in our calendars for the summer. He found out about the trip about ten days before departure, and we decided a few days later that I should take advantage of the opportunity and fly over for a long weekend. When I balked at plane ticket prices, he literally told me that he couldn’t imagine visiting the city of love for the first time without his bride. *swoon* I married so well.

Even though I had no time to plan, my time in Paris was magical in every way. We teachers know sometimes the best moments happen outside of the lesson plan anyway.

In the drop-everything-and-leave whirlwind of booking flights, arranging childcare, etc., I didn’t have time to actually plan anything. No itineraries, no excursions booked ahead of time, and definitely no­ language lessons. So, when I disembarked the flight and was inundated with a beautiful language that I couldn’t actually speak, it was quite a shock for someone who prides themselves on being a planner. And a linguist. And a linguist with a pretty extensive background in language acquisition, to boot.

It’s not that I haven’t ever learned another language. I have. I studied Spanish intensely in high school and then majored in it in college. I have attended Spanish immersion camps and study abroad programs and have visited many Spanish-speaking countries. And it’s not that I haven’t traveled abroad recently either. I had the amazing opportunity to visit Australia just last year. But, this was my first time in twenty years I had been abroad and couldn’t communicate, and I honestly had forgotten what that felt like.

The “curse of knowledge” is a phenomenon often talked about in academic circles. It’s the idea that once someone becomes so well-versed in a subject that it becomes challenging to remember what it was like to not have that knowledge. In essence, once you’re an expert, it’s harder to put yourself in the shoes of a novice, even though you were a beginner once upon a time. A 2018 New York Times article highlighted how college professors often don’t remember what it was like to be a college student, even though they spend their entire careers working alongside students. After my experience in France, I believe this may also be true for ESL teachers – even the specialists among us.

Below are 5 language learning insights I had while experiencing French as a beginning language learner in Paris:

#1 - Cognates are critical

English and French have a unique shared history, and it’s actually because of extended contact with the French language that English – a Germanic language – has so many commonalities with romance languages. (While I can attest to Paris being very romantic, romance languages simply mean “from Rome”. Thus, romance languages are those derived from Latin. Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese are all examples of romance languages.) The Norman Conquest of 1066 A.D. and subsequent occupation of England by French-speaking Normans meant that English would ultimately become a sort of half-sister in the romance language family tree, sharing many commonalities — and many cognates — between them.

Since I know both English and Spanish, cognates were abundant in French and made it easier to guess what words might mean.

Majeste? Sounds like majesty. Must mean king.

Fraise? Looks like fresa. Fresa is Spanish for strawberry. Must mean strawberry.

Octubre? Looks just like Spanish octubre and similar to English october. Must mean October.

Cognates sure were helpful when ordering pastries in this amazing gluten-free cafe. Chocolat or fraise? Never mind, I'll take one of each.

In teacher prep programs, I’ve taught what cognates are, and we have giggled together while reviewing examples of embarrassing false cognates. I regret spending so much class time on false cognates, however, when I could have spent that time highlighting strategies about teaching for linguistic transfer, as modeled in this dual-language classroom.

Cognates themselves are amazingly useful in language acquisition. So useful, in fact, that we can’t leave it to chance that our EL students will recognize them. My experience in Paris convinced me that we must train teachers to teach students what cognates are and how they can take advantage of commonalities between students’ L1 and L2. Even if a student's L1 doesn't have have a strong historical connection to English, linguistic borrowing is so prevalent between English and other world languages, there are bound to be cognates between the two. Let's capitalize on them.

#2 - Comprehensible Input = 👍 👍 👍

When a word wasn’t an obvious cognate, I began relying much more on comprehensible input. This sometimes meant gestures, like when we were trying to explain that we wanted to buy train tickets to Versailles and the attendant was holding up two fingers to indicate we needed two tickets and then held up an index finger to signal the number 1 followed by a waving gesture, which we understood to mean we needed one ticket to get there and a separate ticket to return. (Side note: this conversation was happening while I was watching the 2019 #VirtuEL19 conference on my phone. Priorities!)

Without this visual, ordering my late-night snack would have been much more difficult.

Another example of comprehensible input emerged when I was wanting to order a late-night crêpe and the crêperie offered all sorts of flavor combinations. When looking at each menu option (which all had fun names like the Claude Monet and the Coco Chanel), there were words listing the ingredients, but I didn’t recognize many of them. How excited we were to discover that the menu had its own little anchor chart with pictures to identify each ingredient! Even though we weren’t quite sure what noisette was from the picture, the visual helped us narrow it down that it was likely some type of nut. Turns out it was hazelnuts. And, they were yummy!

My takeaway from this experience was that we need to be encouraging teachers to add visuals to anchor charts and other text in the classroom as much as possible. I personally am a terrible artist, and stick figures are my go-to move. It scares me to think about having to draw on-the-fly visuals on a co-created anchor chart with my students. But, my time in Paris tells me that it’s completely necessary. Find a student who draws well and enlist their services or pre-print clip art or google images, but somehow, some way, the visual must be present.

#3 - Risk-taking is necessary

Probably the most surprising thing about my trip was how self-conscious I was to use any French at all. Once I arrived and realized that it was going to be difficult to “wing it” in French, I watched a YouTube tutorial that explained the very basics of greetings, polite language, and how to order at a restaurant. I followed along with this tutorial just fine and learned how to say “I want this” and “The check, please” and a few other key phrases. But, once out in the world interfacing with a real French speaker, I was hesitant to use them.

We know that the affective filter is comprised of self-esteem, anxiety, and motivation, and Krashen (1977) posited that language acquisition cannot occur if any of these factors keeps the filter high. Perhaps because I’m a linguist who teaches and studies speech sounds, but every time I tried to say a word in French, I knew I was butchering it. I knew my American “r” sound in merci was giving me away as an imposter. I knew that I was supposed to be using nasal vowels but just couldn’t get my articulators to cooperate.

A good quote, but not great advice for language acquisition. Take risks, and equip your students to do the same. Language learning is inherently messy and imperfect, and we must normalize the risk-taking process.

My mind was in a constant hamster wheel risk-reward cycle, trying to decide if the risk of sounding like an incompetent bozo was worth the reward of communicating with my French-speaking interlocutor. The “incompetent bozo” narrative tended to win out, meaning my language learner self-esteem plummeted and my affective filter went sky high.

While I spend a lot of time training ESL teachers to make instructional and classroom management decisions to facilitate a low affective filter in their students, one new thought I had was how important it is to encourage students to be risk-takers. Language learning is all about taking risks. As we build growth mindsets in our students, let’s lean further into the risk-taking aspect of social-emotional learning and make SEL a priority in ESL so we can help counteract the negative self-talk that can be so debilitating.

#4 - The silent period is frustrating

Like most language learners, I found myself spending more time on the receptive end of the language spectrum rather than the expressive one. I generally opted to smile and nod and to try to make my facial expressions communicate “I’m really a likable person even though I’m not saying anything.” This was frustrating, though, because I’m accustomed to using words to navigate social situations. Plus, being a stereotypical friendly Texan, I have an inexplicable urge to engage strangers in positive but brief rapport.

A particularly frustrating moment came when I was “randomly selected” for an extra security checkpoint on my flight home and was interacting with a French-speaking security guard. She asked me to pull out any electronics from my carry-on, and as I pulled out my laptop, I was horrified (and also slightly amused) to discover that a large piece of gummy candy had fallen out of its sack in my luggage and adhered itself to my computer. The security guard expressed surprise upon seeing what looked like a half-chewed piece of food on my device and pointed at it and motioned for me to remove. I laughed nervously and said “Oh my!” and hoped she was able to sense from my tone that I was surprised too. In that moment, I so desperately wanted to be able to explain that I wasn’t actually a total slob. But I couldn't.

Reflecting on this experience, I realized that in some ways, I have romanticized the silent period to be this wonderful opportunity to absorb language without any obligation to communicate, without realizing that it’s maddening to not be able to share what’s on your mind. I remember learning in college that stroke victims who lose their expressive language abilities while retaining their receptive ones have extremely high suicide rates. It’s no wonder.

I will continue to encourage ESL teachers to honor the silent period of ELs, but with the increased recognition that even for beginning language learners, we need to prioritize scaffolds such as sentence frames and non-linguistic responses that provide an outlet for learners to express their thoughts in as many ways as possible.

#5 - Deficit-based mentalities are dangerous

While I am certainly sensitive to the ethnocentrism that is so predominant in English-speaking cultures and agree that we have much work to do when it comes to embracing bilingualism in the U.S., it was illuminating to be on the receiving end of linguistic discrimination, although mild in comparison to what happens elsewhere in the world.

It was close quarters on this terrace cafe overlooking the Louvre. We were pretty quiet as we ate our lunch, partially because we were in awe of the spectacular view of the iconic glass pyramid and the Eiffel Tower, but also in part because we were self-conscious of being the only customers speaking English.

Many Parisians know English, but at the same time they highly value their own language (and rightly so!). This language attitude was evident when tour guides would occasionally throw in a “sorry-not-sorry” comment about how English speakers should learn French. This made me super intimidated to chat with my husband out in public, even though the other option was to sit in silence. I was surprised that in situations where we were surrounded by French speakers, like on a crowded train, I didn’t even want to make small talk in English because I didn’t want to be perceived as being rude. In these situations, we often only spoke to each other out of necessity.

If I felt self-conscious to use English in a city where bilingualism is valued, imagine how ELs in the states must feel with the constant “Why can’t you just speak English?” rhetoric. This reiterated for me the importance of ESL teachers to adopt an asset-based approach – one that encourages translanguaging and use of the L1 in the classroom – and also one that is intentionally inclusive of non-English speaking family members. If we are ever going to see a change in perspective about bilingualism in the U.S., it has to start with us.

Breaking the Curse of Knowledge

I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to break the “curse of knowledge” and put myself in the shoes of a beginning language learner again. It's good practice for more seasoned teachers to put ourselves in situations that allow us to revisit the language acquisition process. Even if we believe we already have high empathy for our students, it never hurts to walk a mile in their shoes. We just might get greater insight into our practice!

Don't let this be you! Even if you were once a language learner or have a history similar to that of your students, continue to put yourself in situations that foster empathy.

Thankfully for me, it won’t be another 20 years until I have opportunity to do so. Next week, our little family of four will attend Chickasaw language immersion camp in Oklahoma and will learn the endangered language of the Chickasaw tribe. The camp’s predominant methodology is Total Physical Response, so I look forward to experiencing what that’s like from a learner perspective.

And how about you? Did you relate to any of these five observations? Or do you think the curse of knowledge ever affects you in your own work? Drop me a comment and let me know!

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