Of Tigers, Strippers and Communication

Once I asked a student to explain what a tiger is, I couldn’t help laughing when I heard “A tiger is a big car with strippers”. My poor student, let’s call him David, was only trying to say “stripes”, but he mixed-up the spelling and that was the result, followed by a funny explanation of what a stripper really is, which made the class laugh quite a lot. This memory is a good example of a student that is not afraid to speak and make mistakes, and this fearlessness is a key point when learning another language.

The fact above happened in 2006 in Brazil, and David had been my student for a little over two years then. He used to be very shy, afraid of speaking and making mistakes, which would drive him to avoid chances of expressing himself, as he would try to analyze everything he wanted to say in his head beforehand. A mistake like the one mentioned above would make him feel terrible. I have always told my students that it is important for them to speak their minds, to participate in speaking activities, regardless of mistakes made. Above all, they should focus on achieving communication, and if there are grammar errors, that is what I am there for, to polish their use of English as they make use of it. David had heard this speech many times before, but could never really grasp the concept that when students concentrate more on the message and less on grammar, it helps them produce more English and, therefore, feel more confident about doing so. However, in spite of my constant attempts to try and make him speak more freely, the results were unsatisfying and David’s progress was slow.

Salvation had come in November the year before; his boss asked him to go to Washington, the capital of the United States, to participate in a conference and people from all over the world would be there. Of course, David couldn’t say no to this chance and I encouraged him tremendously. I later learned that he was so nervous about not being able to rely on Portuguese, his mother tongue, to talk to people in the conference that he was shivering as he boarded the plane.

Now this is interesting… how afraid a person can be of making mistakes. David wasn’t nervous about going to a different country, thousands of kilometers away from home. He wasn’t nervous about reporting the conference data to his boss. He wasn’t nervous about dealing with different weather and culture. What made him shiver was the fact that he was going to have to speak English! That’s how much making mistakes affected him.

When he came back to class after his trip, he was a whole new person. He was speaking his thoughts as naturally as he did in his first language. It’s not that he had mastered the use of English in the fifteen days that he was in DC; he simply overcame his fear of speaking. The fact that he was forced to handle himself in English because of the conference is irrelevant. He still made grammar and vocabulary mistakes, but he did not fear them anymore, and that did wonders for his learning progress.

David later told us that he made mistakes when he was in Washington, but he had no choice, he had to speak to people. As the days went by, it dawned on him that he was communicating very well with other English speakers, and he began to relax about his conversation skills and stopped worrying about eventual grammar mistakes. He started learning, by himself, strategies for communicating or figuring out vocabulary, even if it meant making mistakes like saying tigers are giant cats with strippers. He learned not to dread his errors, but to see them as an opportunity to learn new things and, why not, have fun with them. David leveled up his English amazingly, simply because he was now focusing on getting his message across more than using good grammar, which improved naturally.

David’s story is the one I like to share with my students to help them realize what he did: That being unafraid of mistakes makes them happen less and less frequently. The “perfect” use of grammar that my students keep trying to reach will come naturally from all the practice they will get exercising how to exchange ideas. After all, studying any language is about, first and foremost, communicating.

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