The Fine Line of Praise


Even if it is your job

Excepting the few very self-confident extroverts, most foreign language students exhibit quite a bit of shyness, or fear of judgment, that holds back their willingness to really engage in the language-learning environment.  I personally fall in this category.

It is a struggle, being on the educator-side of this problem, knowing how to best help the student’s progress.  On one hand, you don’t want to be too critical; on the other, you don’t want student’s errors to fossilize to the point that they are unlikely to fix them.  This very delicate problem has led some teaching approaches to try and guide students down a path that involves as few mistakes as possible.  They introduce new words/phrases very delicately.  Rosetta Stone is run in this fashion.

Fundamentally, I cannot agree with a methodology that is based on the premise, “Don’t make mistakes”.

While learning Portuguese, one of my teachers told us, “You will only learn the language after you have made 50,000 mistakes.  Make your first 100 mistakes today.”  This idea is more daunting, but, in theory, places the student in a classroom that says, “mistakes are expected, mistakes are good.”  This framework appeals to me more. However, in the end, I feel that both approaches are blind to a very important reality to most learners.

Language learners can be, and are, demotivated by both negative criticism and positive criticism.

Earl W. Stevick, in A Way and Ways, says it this way:

Most teachers are willing to agree that negative evaluation may sometimes be harmful to the student, but I have found few who are ready to see that positive evaluation is almost as dangerous a tool.  It seems to be the evaluative climate, more than the content of the evaluation, that does the damage.  Consider the following, an account by a middle-aged man:

“I learnt French in high school and in college.  Outside the classroom I found numerous opportunities to use the language in valid social situations.  The language flowed forth with a steadily increasing fluency  After a gap in usage from 1960 to 1975, I took an intensive advanced French course taught by a Frenchman, with success.  Again the French flowed fluently forth and increased.  Immediately following this intensive course, I returned to my home city, where a friend who was a native Parisian said, “Let’s speak French now.  I want to hear how well you do it.”  My heart did a highland fling, the cold sweat poured off me, goose pimples sprang out, breathing became hard, and the French section of my brain shut down with a bang.  I could only answer (in English), “What do you want to test me for?”  This friend and I have conversed quite satisfactorily on subsequent occasions, but not then” (pg 23).

a-way-and-waysThis of course, applies far beyond just language learning.  It is a rare gift indeed that when spontaneously petitioned, the dancer, the singer or any other talent; is able to produce something representative of their true abilities.  Stevick continues:

Gallwey, the tennis coach, tells us that if you opponent’s forehand is giving you trouble, you may find it to your advantage to compliment him/her on it, saying, “Wow! Your forehand is really hot today! What are you doing?”  This frequently has the effect, says Gallwey, of activating the other person’s Critical Self, which immediately sets about interfering with his Performing Self. (pg 24)

My own experience, in learning both Portuguese and Korean, has been similar.  After I had lived in Brasil for about 18 months, I had become fairly conversationally fluent.  If conversations were brief, I could fool a native speaker into thinking I was Brazilian myself.  One day, a man said hello to me and followed with, “Tudo bem? (how are you?)” to which I responded, “tudo bem. (all is well, I’m good)”.  The next words out of his mouth were, “Wow! You speak perfectly!”

Certainly, I had perfected the intonation, pronunciation and appropriateness of a simple greeting, but I was disheartened.  I was disheartened because I knew I could only disappoint the man (who I liked).  I responded with, “Ah, well, give me a few moments and you’ll hear my accent.” To which he responded, “oh yes, I hear it now.”  It wasn’t a soul-crushing moment, it wasn’t the end of my language learning; but it also didn’t make me want to speak, which, if we were in a language-learning classroom, would have been a problem.

Here in Korea, the native Koreans are fairly unaccustomed (to be… delicate) with foreigners speaking Korean.  In fact, it is something of a stereotype that foreigners often come to Korea and never learn a single word. (I imagine this is a very, very small number of people, but I hear it often said).  I often receive absurd amounts of praise for simply saying, “hello” in Korean.  It would be comical, if it didn’t happen nearly every time I spoke the language.  The native speaker will often give me a thumbs up, make an “ooohhhh!” sound and then say something like, “you speak Korean very well!”  The praise is obviously overblown, since the next thing they say I almost always don’t understand and have almost zero ability to respond to.

A few more examples, from Stevick:

I have had smaller-scale, but quite analogous experiences myself, with speakers of German.  With one, we had just finished what I had thought was a reasonably fluent, and mutually interesting, conversation, when she said, “Oh, I like talking with you.  You use such correct grammar [compared with most foreigners].” I avoided all further opportunities to speak German with this person, because just the memory of this remark would create an evaluative climate for me.  Yet before, and after, with other speakers, I have thoroughly enjoyed using the same language.

“Languages which I have enjoyed studying are, of course, more available to me than those that were not enjoyable.  Nevertheless, my ability to use even the former depends significantly on the cues received from native speakers… In a situation where some specific communication is the goal, I used Japanese fairly fluently, but in big cities, the reaction to a sentence from me in Japanese was often, “oh do you speak Japanese?” followed by a rather awkward exchange in English or Japanese.  In a communicative situation, I am seldom at a loss for words, but if someone urges me, “Say something in Japanese,” I tend to stick to formulas.  Similarly, “I hear that you speak Japanese very well” is less satisfactory in eliciting a Japanese response than any non-evaluative conversational utterance in that language would be.” (pg 23)

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t; it seems, doesn’t it?  If we need to be careful of negative criticism, and we need to be careful of positive criticism, what the hell can we do?!

The secret is in the foundations of why we learn second languages to begin with.  We want to communicate.  Think about the last conversation you had with a native speaker of your own language.  How often did you complement them on their fluency?  Unless they recited a rather long piece of poetry, chances are their language-use wasn’t part of the conversation.  You showed them praise by not drawing attention to their fluency.

You show praise for good language-use by showing you understand what they said.  In the language-classroom, this can be done by repeating back to the student what they said and saying, “did I understand you correctly?”  Asking follow-up questions like, “I see, what about…?” When asking for simple responses, not saying, “good!” every time is helpful. (Though, “thank you” may be very appreciated, if authentic).

Sometimes students will make such errors that you will not be able to comprehend what they are saying, obviously it would be inappropriate to act like you did understand.  Again, the point of learning a language (for most learners) is to communicate; show them you want to communicate in authentic ways.  Ask:

“Do you mean…?”
“Did you say (x)?”
“Can you repeat that?”

Unfortunately, in these situations, students are often socialized to fear judgment when they perceive they made a mistake.  This is woefully true in Korea (and I notice, for myself as well).  After asking one of the above questions, my less-confident students often bury their heads in their arms; embarrassed to say anything.  The important thing is to try and create a classroom environment that can eventually break through this embarrassment.  A part of that process is not overly-criticizing their performance, nor manufacturing praise for the sake of praise. Authenticity seems to play a significant, and yet vague, role.

Some final words from Stevick to conclude:

…I am not saying that one should never praise students, just as I would not say that a surgeon should never use a scalpel.  But praise is two-edged, and very sharp, with more potential for damage than many teachers realize.  Perhaps the beneficial elements in praise are the information it carries (comparable to a tennis player’s seeing that the ball hit inside the line), and the feeling that one has given pleasure to another human being (the teacher).  The negative elements are self-consciousness, and the expectation that the pleasure-giving performance ought to continue.  The trick is to convey the positive without the negative.  But this is a very subtle matter. (pg 24)

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