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Grade Expectations

In Language Magazine's August 2021 issue, Yu Zhou recommends being realistic about learning goals

A week before spring break, I had a conversation with a student about language learning. Since I was a language learner myself, the student asked me for tips on learning a second language. Instead of sharing some tips for improving English learning, I shared my story on language learning. In the past, my goal was to be an expert in a language, but now my goal is to admit what I don’t know and be more honest than I used to be. If I rated my language-learning goal from zero to ten, I would say my past self’s goal was a ten, nine, or 8.5. However, my present self has learned to manage with a score of around five.

The middle point of five may be the best score for me, but why not try to achieve a score of ten? Here is my answer: what would I do after achieving ten? I could choose to stop because I’ve achieved my goal. If life is about reaching the finishing line, ten is the best score and it is the goal of my life. However, if I view my life as a journey without a destination, I need to learn to manage to maintain a score of five. Having the goal of reaching a score of five is a new perspective for me to see my life as being constantly on a journey.

The original goal of achieving ten is rooted in my pursuit of perfection or expertise in learning a language. However, I leave myself with two doubts: the criteria of being the expert/perfect, and the attitude of language learning. When I say an English teacher needs to be an expert in the English language, I lead to the unanswered question of how I measure my own performance. For some reason, the criteria are based on comparison. I am an English teacher because I passed the English teaching certification exam, comparing myself on the certification criteria. When teaching in class, I know more than my students in a language, so I am an expert to them. I can achieve a score of eight, nine, or ten because of how my language ability is compared to others’. My attitude toward language learning developed based on that comparison. It’s about reaching the finishing line and competing against standards or other language learners. That attitude taught me to be a fighter whose goal was to win the final battle and enjoy the triumph. Do I love the language I learn or teach? I would say “yes” because of the success I’ve achieved. But what if I didn’t achieve the goal—would I still love the language? Or if someone told me that it was impossible to know everything in a language, would I choose to learn it? If I assess my love of a language based on competition itself, seeing others who are inferior to me, I will only love it when it gives me the happiness of triumph. For example, my students admire me because I am skilled in English. Such an attitude requires more than a passion for learning a language. It demands the stimulus from winning a competition.

Now, let’s remove the finishing line and imagine that learning a language is a journey with an unknown destination. Life is a balance between knowing and unknowing. Happiness is built upon the movement of all sorts of emotions, including joy and sadness. Loving a language is not about the outcome of learning it, like finding a job, getting attention from others, or winning a competition, the result; rather, it is about the language itself, the process of learning. I have a new goal for myself, which is to manage at around a median score of five. I still want to be an expert in teaching English. This expert is different from the previous one in that he values the curiosity and honesty in language learning instead of valuing competition and the big ego who boasts that he knows everything.

Five is the midpoint of the scale from zero to ten. I chose it as the goal of my language learning and teaching because my goal is to influence my students’ attitude to learning a language and how to perceive love. Learning a language is a journey with an unknown destination, sometimes without destiny. Committing to the unknown leads a curious mind to explore, which is a learning attitude that influences other language learners. On the other hand, I learn a language simply because I enjoy the moment of learning it. I am grateful to have all kinds of emotions, regardless of being happy or sad. I believe love works the same. I choose to love a language, or a person, not because of any positive outcome or reward. I love learning languages because the moment I learn the language, I connect more with people.

“Now, I chose to be honest,” I shared during the conversation. “I forgot the meaning of the word bewilder in reading class. I told my students I forgot what it means, and I said I needed to google its meaning.” Even though I consider myself a skilled language learner, I am still learning. My growth does not end here, and like my students, I will continue to use outside resources to help hone my skill. I hope to teach my students that their goals are achievable and that we all have an equal playing field on which to learn languages.

Yu Zhou is a sixth-grade English teacher in Dallas, Texas. He has a passion for teaching reading and writing. During his free time, he enjoys traveling and exploring the cultural values of different languages.

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