The Tiny Little Monkey in Your Brain

I have an adult student who is a beginner in English. She is highly motivated but has tried to learn English before and has never succeeded. She likes working with me and getting comprehensible input. I’ve worked with the vocabulary of three songs in English (In the Ghetto, Imagine and Yellow Lemon Tree), making it comprehensible so she can listen to them at home and in her car. We’ve done stories, oral and written, with the vocabulary, and we’ve “read” the graphic novel, The Arrival.

She came in this morning very stressed and upset. She said that she had wanted to review a story we had done and couldn’t remember what “was” meant. I was surprised, because we have seen the word often and when I asked her to translate “He was big and strong” she did it correctly. The reason she was so upset was that the reading I had given her included the expression “There was”.  I had explained that it meant “Il y avait” and she had written the translation in the margin. She was now convinced that “was” could mean either était or avait (had).  She had worked herself into a sad state at the idea that she would never know which was which. She had gone onto the Internet and printed out “conjugaisons” of  avoir en anglais and être en anglais. She was saying, “I have to know these. I have to learn (memorize) them. I have to find time to do it. I’ll never get anywhere if I don’t know these verbs.”

From our very first lesson I have tried to explain Comprehensible Input to her and why I don’t like to use our time together with grammatical points. I’ve insisted on the difference between Acquired language and Learned language. Today it took me a while to explain to her that the French use of avoir in the expression Il y avait is idiomatic  and can not be translated word for word. She was saying, “I know you don’t want me to be looking up the grammar of these things, but I have to understand.” I told her that there was nothing wrong with looking up the grammar, but it wasn’t going to help her Acquire the language. This is a woman who has no confidence in her own ability to learn, thanks to teachers and family members who have denigrated her in the past.

To try to get her to understand, I asked her to imagine a friendly little animal that she could pet. She decided that she would really like to have a tiny pygmy monkey, a little brown and white one. I then explained that scientists now say we have two brains, or what some call System One and System Two. System One handles our automatic reactions, the things that we do “without thinking”, such as riding a bicycle, and speaking spontaneously. System Two is our conscious intelligence, the voice we hear in our minds. I asked her to think of System One as her little monkey, very quick and bright, but easily frightened and very shy. He knows how to do a lot of things because he watches everything with his big bright eyes and never really forgets anything. But, if he’s nervous or upset, he shuts down and runs away to hide in the trees.

System Two is a school master, strict and hard to satisfy and he loves intricate grammar rules. He’s good at scolding and also very expensive because he consumes vast quantities of energy, whereas the little monkey uses almost no energy and seems to live on air. I told her that she needs to be very kind to her little monkey, to get it to relax and feel safe, so that he can listen and absorb all the input we are feeding him. In time the little monkey will Acquire English and she’ll be able to speak, easily and fairly correctly. But I also told her that the little monkey is afraid of the School Master, and whenever he starts talking about conjugaisons and verb tenses, the little monkey panics, scoots up the nearest tree and hides. And stops listening.

Throughout the rest of the lesson, the tiny little monkey image helped me to keep her on track, so that she could listen and enjoy the input I was giving her. Perhaps it’s an image than can help others.

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