Before my son was born I taught English to immigrants and asylum seekers at a college. I enjoyed teaching higher levels most, as it afforded me the best opportunities for language geekiness – really getting my teeth into the finer points of grammar and pronunciation, stretching the students’ vocabulary and exploring essay and story writing. My last tutor group, however, was a beginners’ group. I was very nervous at the start of the year, not sure if I would be able to do a good job or whether I’d enjoy it, but I loved it. The students were so lovely and grateful for anything you did for them and teaching-wise it was also extremely enjoyable. You see so much progress in a year with beginners. Also, absolutely anything you do with them will help improve their language and their confidence, so we went on outings to the cafe, the park, the British Museum and the local ecology centre.
What I found essential for communicating with my students and building a good rapport was what us English teachers like to call ‘grading your language’, which basically means choosing words like “trip” instead of “expedition” and trying not to use endlessly long sentences with subclauses and past perfect continuous tenses. It also helps to make eye contact and face your student when talking to them, and trying not to mumble or speak too fast. I can actually think of quite a few walks of life where we could benefit from people grading their language.
These essential skills for teaching I am now finding a bit of a hindrance in speaking to my Toddler. He is not a fifty-five year old Afghani woman who is leaving the house on her own for the first time and already has a native language interfering with the learning of English. He is at the peak of his language learning abilities. He is like a little sponge, soaking up everything he hears. He repeats anything you say to him, as if he is tasting the words. He picks things up when you weren’t even sure he was listening. He is absorbing two different languages at once and sorting them into their appropriate context without any need for formal instruction or homework. The things that will help him learn are not the things that will help a group of nervous, adult beginners.
I know this, yet out of habit I find myself grading my language. I use words that I know he has already mastered and use the same phrases in the same situations. In fact, I find myself worrying about other people ‘confusing him’ by using different expressions to me. When I want the Toddler to ask for something politely, I say: “Can you ask me nicely?” However, other people will say: “What’s the magic word?” or “What do you say?” The evidence suggests that he has absolutely no trouble recognising that all these questions require the same response, but instinctively, I feel I need to limit his language input.
The opposite is true. I need to radically re-wire myself. The Toddler needs more, not less, variety in his language input. Unlike an adult, who has already got all their concepts of the world sorted but needs to learn to map them to a new language, he is learning about life at the same time as learning to speak. Everything in the world is new to him and he wants to know how things work, what they are and how he can talk about them. He knows ‘good’, so now it’s time to learn ‘excellent’, ‘fantastic’, ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful’. He knows you can ‘fly’ on a plane, so now he needs to know that you can ‘soar’ and ‘zoom’ and ‘lift off’ and ‘touch down’ and that birds and kites and Superman can do flying as well. Instead of limiting myself to conversational topics that can be expressed in the present tense, I should discuss the past and the future and conditionals and passives and mights and used tos.
Technically, this is still “grading your language”. I just need to grade it up, not down.