Dear oh dear. I believe this is what the young ‘uns might refer to as an ‘epic fail’ – over a year without posting, and zero Malay learnt. Quite a lot of it forgotten, in fact, so if anything I’ve gone backwards. Not what I set out to achieve at all. I’m all for growth mindsets, but there comes a time when you’re better off admitting defeat.
Once again I’ve joined the ranks of the L2 walking dead, destined to live out my days in interlanguage limbo without ever being able to carry a conversation beyond the hi–how are you?–fine thanks stage. (Perhaps I should just run away once those preliminaries are complete and leave my interlocutor with the impression that I’m totally proficient, if a bit odd.) It would be interesting to know what proportion of EFL beginners end up like me, but the industry seems to have no interest in keeping track of people once they’ve stopped handing over their hard-earned. That’s a pity, because without understanding why it is that students fall at the first (or second, or third) hurdle, we are destined to help only those that can already help themselves.
If my experience is anything to go by, there are five necessary conditions for success:
A supportive learning community
This is the bit that we as teachers can influence, creating an environment where learners are free to experiment with their developing language and where they get support and useful feedback on their experiments. But also by creating a society in the classroom, where learners feel they belong and where they are valued as people, not just as ‘students’ or ‘customers’. My form-focused lessons didn’t give me a lot of freedom; the society part was there but in English, not in Malay.
A supportive usage community
For many students it’s difficult to find a usage community, let alone a supportive one. But it’s vital to be able to leave the confines of the classroom and have the opportunity to use what you’ve learned out in the real world, without feeling like a complete div. It’s the last part I have trouble with (that pesky mindset again), but my day-to-day life doesn’t involve many opportunities to speak Malay. My usage community consisted of the cleaner at work.
I haven’t labelled this one very well – I mean that you need some kind of affinity with the language and/or the culture of some of its speakers in order to keep going. Most Malay speakers are Muslim: they don’t drink, eat pork or welcome discussions on the merits of atheism, whereas I can think of few things I rate higher than pale ale, bacon and Christopher Hitchens. I should probably have considered that 18 months ago.
Duh. Working 60 hours a week while doing a master’s and writing materials doesn’t leave much time (or energy!) for language learning.
I wouldn’t say this one was a necessary condition so that’s why it’s last on the list, but it certainly helps. Being able to get on professionally, even if that just means better relationships with local staff at work, is a huge motivator. Learning Malay would have had almost no impact on my work life.
What now, then? I thought of picking a new language to learn, one that satisfied more of the conditions above, or of getting into Spanish again. But at the moment there aren’t any languages that satisfy all those conditions (Spanish included), so I suspect I’d be setting myself up for another epic fail. What does tick all the boxes, however, is teaching—teacher training, more specifically. I have ready-made learning and usage communities, no shortage of interest, time (most of which I seem to spend at work), and professional incentive.
So I’m reserving the right to change tack completely and throwing in the proverbial towel with Malay. “What of all that self-righteous guff about ‘first hand experience of language learning’?”, I hear you ask! Well, when I set out my original aim my inspiration was Richard Schmidt, who diarised his experience of learning Brazilian Portuguese, but it’s worth noting that he had the luxury of all the conditions I’ve listed above. When I do too, I’ll resume my quest to follow in his footsteps. But for now, a detour…