Tao Te Ching for Language Teachers

January 1st, 2020

“Brim-fill the bowl, it’ll spill over.” Lao Tzu by way of Ursula K. Le Guin

As language teachers, we want to hear our students speak. Yet, we all have seen the results of forced output: students who dread speaking, who hesitate and stumble and the one phrase that comes out is exactly what they know is incorrect. It’s like trying to draw water from a shallow, muddy well. When I asked a university class of eighteen year old English majors to describe a frightening experience, at least a quarter of them wrote about being called on to speak in English in class.

Stephen Krashen tells us to give our students optimal input, rich and varied input, and the output will take care of itself. I’ve often used the image of the glass of water filled to the brim with students who want to practice speaking. When they speak because they can’t help themselves, when they are not practicing but communicating something essential, the language that flows from their mouths will be clear and correct.

Other teachers insist that students need to practice. “You learn to speak by speaking.” Yet Lao Tzu continues with “Keep sharpening the blade, you’ll soon blunt it.” By forcing students to speak before they are ready, before the speech spills out of their mouth, we are blunting their spontaneous desire to speak. One of my adult students told a story about being called to the phone in her office because her colleagues knew she was taking English lessons. The caller was English and spoke no French. My student answered their questions and gave them the information they needed. When she hung up, she was utterly amazed at herself. Telling me about it she said, “I don’t know where the words were coming from. I completely forgot I was speaking in English, I just wanted to help them.”

Fill the bowl to the brim and it will spill over.

Give your students optimal input. When their minds are filled with lovely language, it will spill out of their mouths.

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