Not just fun and games

Not just fun and games

Pleasure and learning and teaching. What better antidote to current unsettled times than to reflect a moment upon the relationship between this trinity. A week or so ago, during an email exchange, a second-year EFL distance learning student (a recently retired polyglot pensioner named Jean) explained to me the following:

‘meeting a new language is in itself a funny and exciting experience, a little bit as when you meet an attractive person at a party or at the baker’s: after a little chat, you decide to have a coffee together the next day, and you go back home thrilled and wondering if he/she could be a possible boyfriend/girlfriend :o) Pleasure and excitement of discovery always are intense, sometimes breath-taking, whatever the final result.’

At the baker’s? Spot on.

Sadly to say my memories of learning a foreign language (French) in a classroom, and I imagine those of many other language learners, could not be further removed from Jean’s experience. Of course, the pleasure of the encounter is one thing and maintaining a relationship, in other words sticking with language learning with the constraints that this implies including effort, hard work and perseverance, quite another. But I do  think that as teachers, often snowed under by admin, marking and often difficult teaching contexts we are in danger of sometimes forgetting the vital importance of enabling our students to access and continuing to access pleasure during learning.

Why is this vitally important? Firstly, because I believe that pleasure enhances language learning. Let’s take the example of reading literature in the FL language classroom. Whilst foreign literature is important because it provides access to another culture, helps with vocabulary acquisition and so forth, Anne Lhérété reminds us in her article ‘La Lecture littéraire plutôt que la grammaire du texte’ that perhaps the most important aspect is that it enables learners to develop a desire to want to read in the foreign language for themselves. She describes the foreign language teacher primarily as a person who communicates or passes on pleasure (passeur). This desire to fully engage with a foreign language seems to me the principle motor of language learning.

The realisation that languages and emotions are closely linked is not new; one’s native language is also referred to as one’s mother tongue which is hardly neutral. Many of us know how utterly dispiriting learning and/or speaking a foreign language badly can be. I think of Eva Hoffman’s account of learning American after her exile from Poland in the 1950S:

‘Perhaps the extra knot that strangles my voice is rage. I am enraged at the false persona I’m being stuffed into, as into some clumsy and overblown astronaut suit. I’m enraged at my adolescent friends because they can’t see through the guise, can’t recognise the light-footed dancer I really am. They only see this elephantine creature…’ (119)

This month’s special issue of Recherches en education takes a closer look at the repercussions for learning and teaching of the emotions. In order to foster learning it claims that emotions need to be increasingly taken into account in teacher training. And not only positive emotions. As we might expect, negative emotions can be harmful to learning, but Catherine Audrin underlines the fact that negative emotions such as confusion or frustration can also be, if recognised and harnessed correctly, beneficial to learning (9). She explains, quoting Pekrun (2006), how positive emotions linked to accomplishing a task, increase the interest of a learner in the task and  learner effort, improving the quality of the work and augmenting regulation of meta-cognitive learning strategies (8). Intrinsic (as opposed to extrinsic) motivation is also supplemented (Pekrun et al., 2011) as is self-regulation of learning. I was surprised to learn that recent studies have also shown that the emotional content (joyful, neutral or sad) of what is studied can have an effect on learning, depending on the tasks. Apparently, there is some proof that joyful content is linked to a better performance for a grammar-based task, but not necessarily for written comprehension or dictation (9).  

So, if pleasure is important in learning, let’s think about its importance to teaching. What do I enjoy about teaching? Personally, I would say sharing, interacting, creating, re-creating, continually learning and questioning my own beliefs and in doing so hopefully improving my own skills, all whilst accompanying learners along a small stretch of their way. When I am physically in a classroom a large part of my pleasure is of a social nature and derived from setting into motion a fluid, harmonious learning environment. (I want to say musical but maybe this is because I haven’t actually been in a classroom since March). My colleague Amanda put it slightly differently ‘I take pleasure in teaching, in building rapport with my students and maybe most of all in observing them progress’ and I’m sure that many teachers would agree with her. Just as they would doubtless agree with remarks from other friends and colleagues, including the fact that pleasure is primordial but not the same thing at all as fun and games, and that there is great pleasure to be had from the continuous challenges offered up by classrooms.

So much for some of the pleasurable aspects of teaching, but what effect does this have on learning? Audrin quotes Hatfield (2016) on the possible learning benefits of ‘emotional contagion’ eg if a teacher feels and show enthusiasm for what they are teaching then learning will be enhanced (10). Positive teacher emotions it would seem are linked to more learner-based (as opposed to teacher-centred) classrooms and enable teachers to create a closer rapport with their learners. Some studies have apparently shown that negative teacher emotions can be harmful for learning, for example they may be linked to harsher evaluations (12).

The question of personal well-being is also relevant here. The joy that comes from practising something you enjoy and believe in. A colleague recently suggested to me in no uncertain terms that pleasure should not be the main criterion when establishing curricula. My first reaction was ‘Oh dear, I’ve been getting it all wrong for the last twenty years. What was I thinking?’ Which is why I began to question my unquestioning attitude to the question. The fruit of which you have just read.

My conclusion?  I beg to differ with aforementioned colleague and prefer to side firmly with Philippe Meirieu who has spent his whole career believing that a teacher’s job consists in essentially enabling learners ‘to access the pleasure of learning and understanding, to experience the joy of rendering intelligible the world around them and to realize their own membership of the human condition’ (my translation 44).

Audrin, C. (2020). Les émotions dans la formation enseignante : une perspective historique. Recherches en éducation 4, 5-19.

Hoffman, E. (1989). Lost in Translation. A life in a New Language. London: Heinemann.

Lhérété, A. (2011, May 16). La lecture littéraire plutôt que la Grammaire du texte. Académie Versailles Portail Langues.

Meirieu, P. et al. (2014). Le plaisir d’apprendre. Manifeste. Paris: autrement.

Lou’s Fig_tart flowers

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