Kao Shin-fan (
This week, at Meilun Junior High School in Hualien, I just finished a very exciting three-week English project called Talk Fest, which was based on the lessons of a successful EFL teacher. Talk Fest works like this: As a language teacher, I meet with each student on a one-on-one basis each day to chat with them for five minutes in English.
The thought of this horrified some of my Taiwanese colleagues. They were afraid each Talk Fest session would be the most terrifying five minutes of my students' lives. The reality proved quite different.
Six-hundred-and-sixty seventh and eighth grade students participated in Talk Fest. I couldn't wait to get to school each day because every session held new surprises. All of the students were actively communicating in English.
The pattern was always the same. Most students were initially hesitant and shy. Within minutes of starting a Talk Fest session, however, each student would open up and tell me something about their family, classes and daily life. The more advanced students told me why they believed their English was good and what they hoped to do when they finished school.
Much to their own surprise, the kids were all speaking English. As one young girl finished and walked to the door she excitedly declared to the world, "I can speak English!" Yes, she can. They all can.
So why aren't Taiwanese university students talking? A successful EFL teacher must provide positive feedback to the student.
Negative feedback is counter-productive to language learning.
Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean children are regularly subjected to compulsory, competitive testing.
Testing of this sort invariably provides the students with negative feedback.
The majority of students perceive themselves as unsuccessful. Even the student who gets the second highest grades in the class is disappointed. Second place is not best. Even the highest scorer is sometimes not satisfied because 99 percent is not 100 percent. Constant testing and the resulting negative feedback explain why Taiwanese students are silent in class. Throughout their schooling, students are pounded with negative feedback.
After any of these countless tests, are the students handed a certificate that says "Congratulations. You can now speak English?" No. Any certificate they may receive only admits them to the next level of testing.
Official negative feedback is not the only negative feedback young Taiwanese English students face. Most Taiwanese adults I speak to are hell-bent on complaining about how bad Taiwanese youth are at English. How would they know? Have they ever spoken to these kids in English?
In both Korea and Taiwan I have met parents who themselves were English teachers, yet who were very surprised when I told them their children spoke English well. Negative feedback continues for most of these kids at home.
To prepare my students for a successful Talk Fest, I spent seven months countering years of negative feedback. The success of Talk Fest proved without a doubt that when young Taiwanese are placed in a comfortable, familiar situation, they are happy to communicate in English. Talk Fest shattered the myth that Taiwanese students prefer silence.
Learning a foreign language is like learning any other skill. If your mother told you as a baby that you would never succeed in learning to walk, you wouldn't have learned to walk. If your father had told you that you would never learn to ride a bike, you would never have learned. If everyone tells you that you can't learn English, you are going to be too nervous to open your mouth.
Parents often ask me for help improving their child's English. Simple. Provide liberal amounts of praise. Smother the child in positive feedback. This acts as a catalyst for the youngster to keep trying. They naturally want to show off their skills when encouraged. They don't want to stay silent.
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