EFL materials

I’m feeling desperate. Every year, new ESL materials are created to a serve the very unique and arguably biggest market for foreign language learning: adults and ESP. I’m trapped in a world where this decontextualised nonsense is something most of my peers see as perfectly normal, applauding the great advances in materials design as if it’s anything more than polishing an inappropriate, deceitful way to promise students improvement in their foreign language development.

The adult teaching context is, in my experience, complex compared to that of young learners. Though motivation in YLs is a key issue with no shortage of published material, they could be stereotypically described as language sponges — soaking up new language as it is presented to them. Adults, though they still in theory have the ability to soak up new language, more often have a crippling layer of difficulty in the form of inhibition. It seems to me that once YLs reach the age of their first life-defining exams (e.g. A-Levels, Baccalaureate, SATs, etc.) they’ve already been systematically brainwashed into thinking mistakes are shameful, leading to the development of perfectionist beliefs.

This, in my experience, creates a permanent layer of mistake anxiety that continues into adulthood, which affects our ability to freely and easily acquire language as YLs do. This ingrained fear manifests itself as defensiveness, frustration, depression, self-deprecation, the list goes on. These typical side-effects of perfectionist beliefs differ in severity depending on the student’s personal experiences. Error correction leads to shame. Using imagination is rejected for fear of uttering something embarrassing. The lesson becomes a dry, clinical attempt to avoid any meaningful language use. For anyone who’s studied Krashen, this is explained as the affective filter.

In a non-target-language country, this makes learning avoidance almost inevitable in a large part of the population who would otherwise like to acquire it for better job opportunities, holidays, or simply satisfying a passion. An excuse develops that learning is only affective when you spend time in the target language country. This is true, to an extent, as immersive learning helps overcome psychological hang-ups thanks to the basic need to survive and be accepted in one’s community. As most people’s time or budget constraints negate embarking on such an adventure, this becomes the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

So, with such a considerable, fundamental barrier to language learning existing in one of the main markets for the major textbook publishers, you’d imagine this would form a key part of their published content. There are several obvious reasons that this isn’t the case. For starters, each country has its own cultural profile, with its own unique reasons for learning avoidance, so producing country-specific books would be costly and unprofitable. Secondly, it’s much easier to cop out with the excuse that such psychological difficulties are outside the remit of poor, pedestrian, private sector language teachers. Finally, many students use existing learning materials to successfully improved their language competence, despite their neuroses. Classroom-based students often overcome such difficulties unconsciously as they engage in interesting group activities, becoming confident language users without explicit psychological intervention.

So what’s my problem, you may well ask? I’m not satisfied. It feels like if we dared to confront the issue of learning avoidance due to childhood / adult trauma regarding mistake making, there’d be a huge opportunity to extend effective, achievable language learning to those who’d otherwise avoid it, or worse — those who continue paying for frustrating courses or materials that end in an inexplicable lack of progress. I believe these two groups of potential learners can be reached; all they need is guidance and advice concerning coping techniques for the sometimes intense psychological stress of live language production and public performance.

Do I have the answer to this problem? Nope. But I’m tired of seeing the same old rehashed material in every new mainstream course-book, designed for a market of people lucky enough to learn English in an Anglophone environment or a supportive group scenario. With self-help books being all the rage these days, how can no one have written a book with such a focus on self-improvement as well as language improvement. If I’m wrong, and such books exist and have slipped through my net, please let me know in the comments. If not, let’s write one together; think of the adults!

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