Language makes a difference

Published 11:36 am Monday, September 20, 2010

Young students seem to have the attitude that English language courses are a pointless academic exercise unrelated to real life and intended largely to make their academic life difficult. In reality, life itself demands learning language, and the teaching of English is purposed toward living life successfully.

I noticed this from the indifference of fellow students, especially in high school, and I now recognize it discouraged my learning. I think I had always been reasonably concerned about language, but it wasn’t until the beginning of graduate studies that I realized the inadequacy of my usage and that I needed to concentrate to get control. When I taught English in a Michigan high school, I quickly experienced this indifference in my students. Years later, I found it yet more severe in my community college students here. Last week I was reminded of this when I was the guest instructor in a class on critical thinking and writing in a Chicago university.

In contrast, every now and then, a young professional will ask me to review something the individual has written for submission on which the person’s future depends. These earnest people become aware of what they need to know but failed to learn in school. Now they try to recover.

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I am currently editing the writings of two such who have asked me to mentor them in language, especially their writing. One is trying to make his mark in the scholarly world, and the other is trying to compete in the business world. Neither had paid sufficient attention to language courses in high school or even college, and both have come to regret it while out in the cold, real world.

An exercise I have suggested to students who doubt the practicality of language instruction is to survey the jobs section of any newspaper and encircle every ad that requires communication skills. However indicative this has been and however much it has impressed a few students, most presume their current communication skills to be at least adequate. Their evidence? They know what they mean and are confident others do as well. They are mistaken on both counts.

The student who feels he or she already knows how to write and speak is one who most needs to learn. Those who do communicate well will become thrilled with how much they improve.

The first obstacle to learning most students encounter within a required writing or speech class is the simple fact it is required. I wish I could suggest a way to motivate every student to enroll in these classes voluntarily, but they won’t do it unless it is required. Moreover, schools must require language learning precisely because life does.

A second reason most language instruction fails is the other side of the requirement coin: teachers are required to teach required courses. I don’t know which came first: the chicken of teachers eschewing required courses or the egg of administrators requiring teachers to teach them. The tendency is to assign beginning courses to the least experienced and competent of the faculty. With tenure, teachers tend to demand upper level courses.

The indifference of teachers is easily corrected by students showing interest. A teacher comes to life when even one student says, “I want to learn; teach me.”

Students cannot be forced to learn what they refuse to learn. If a student wishes to learn, almost any school has adequate resources available to help such a student learn.

Students, forget that it’s a required course and learn required language in your present opportunities. If you fail in this, one of two things will happen. You’ll either fail in life, or you will need to learn on your own. Life itself requires language skills.