Every student who sets out on a journey to learn English as a second language will face a series of challenges. Some will be common to other language learners, others will be more personal in nature. The question is, what are some of the most common language learning challenges? And, how can you help your students overcome them?
The language learning journey
Anyone who has taught a language knows it’s not always an easy path. First, students have the initial burst of energy. Next comes the lower intermediate realisation of how much they have to learn. Then comes the dreaded learning plateau. If by some miracle, students have lasted beyond this point, they still face the ups and downs of the journey to English proficiency.
As teachers, it can be hard to get students to commit to learning English for the long-haul. However, once you recognise the challenges language learners face, it makes it easier to prepare and guide them through the rocky terrain.
Let’s take a closer look at those learning challenges and what you can do to help:
Challenge #1: The beginner’s fear of speaking
When student’s first embark on their language learning journey, every day’s a school day. They’re excited to be there, finally living their dream. They’re bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of eagerness to learn. But, very quickly, the enthusiasm can wavever. And before they know it, it’s replaced by shyness and fear.
Embarrassment when speaking is not uncommon. Typically, beginners know about 200 words plus when they first start out. However, they don’t yet have the grammatical tools to string them together. At this stage, opening your mouth to answer a question can feel like a risk. Instead, it’s often easier to sit in silence, and stare at the floor.
How can you help? The best way to get students to get over a fear of speaking is to address it head on. Explain that making mistakes is a normal part of language learning. In fact, it’s welcomed! How are they ever meant to know what they can do if they don’t try?
Here are some ways to get your students speaking:
- Drill fixed phrases such as greetings, everyday expressions and interjections.
- Have them record themselves in private to get comfortable with speaking another language.
- Teach them the freedom to fail.
- Encourage students to be patient – everyone reaches milestones at a different point.
Challenge #2: Getting intimidated at pre-intermediate
So, your students have mastered the present tenses, they’ve learned all the names for the parts of the house, they’re communicating in basic sentences. Nothing seems to be stopping them.
When all of a sudden, they realise they’re only a quarter of a way up the mountain. They see the mammoth journey ahead. They stop thinking about what they know, and start to realise everything they don’t know. In the beginning, people don’t know how long it takes to learn a language, or the hard work involved. The realisation can be incredibly frustrating, particularly for lower levels.
How can you help? Teach your students to become lifelong learners. Remind them that fluency shouldn’t be the only goal. It’s also about making step-by-step progress and getting those micro-wins, like having a basic conversation or ordering a cup of coffee.
Here are some tips to help stop your students getting overwhelmed:
- Get them to create a list of short term and long term goals.
- Teach them to foster a growth mindset and consider the whole process of learning.
- Have them record a list of their successes and strengths to date.
- Remind them to focus on their own learning journey, not compare themselves to others.
Challenge # 3: The intermediate plateau
Much like climbing a mountain, once students have got over the initial struggle, learning tends to plateau. They stop feeling like they’re improving, motivation takes a dip, and the temptation to give up is strong.
So, why does this happen? The language learning plateau is a well-known phenomenon. In the beginning stages of learning, students see lots of progress. After all, from zero to one is a big leap!
But then their acceleration begins to slow. They already have the basic language in place, so there’s less incentive to keep going.
How can you help? What many learners don’t realise is that they are still in fact progressing.
But if they can’t rely on obvious signs of improvement, they’ll need you to be their coach.
Try these things to help your students with a learning plateau:
- Explain what a learning plateau is before they experience one.
- Do a needs analysis to re-establish what their aims are throughout the year.
- Have them make a list of their original motivations and choose the most important one to focus on.
- Get them to create a study schedule and build a routine to keep them on track.
Challenge #4: Breaking out into the real world: the rocky road to advanced
Once students have overcome the learning plateau, they breathe a sigh of relief. They turn a corner. And suddenly see another language learning challenge looming in the distance: the uphill struggle to advanced.
At B2 level, students have become more independent learners. They’re able to understand and be understood in most situations. They can communicate ideas, present arguments, but their English lacks refinement.
This stage is crucial on the path to fluency; it’s all about sounding more natural. Students need to learn phrasal verbs, get rid of any fossilized errors, and start to use idiomatic expressions.
How can you help? The best way to help your students with this language learning challenge, is to give them more exposure to real-world English. Now’s the time for them to let go of the security blanket of the textbook, and take their English beyond the classroom.
Try out the following things:
- Mix up your classes. Include more role plays, debates, interviews and peer to peer teaching.
- Try standardized testing to iron out problem areas.
- Set fun homework challenges – download a language learning app, watch a series, listen to the radio, read a chapter of a book in English.
- encourage full immersion. For example, your students could join a club, do a course, find a part-time job in English, or even study abroad.
At times learning a language can feel tiresome. But like anything in life, the difficult journey up makes the view from the top of the mountain that much sweeter. What challenges do your students face? And how do you help them overcome them?