Pilgrims HomeContentsEditorialMarjor ArticleJokesShort ArticleIdeas from the CorporaLesson OutlinesStudent VoicesPublicationsAn Old ExercisePilgrims Course OutlineReaders LettersPrevious EditionsTeacher Resource Books Preview

Copyright Information

Would you like to receive publication updates from HLT? You can by joining the free mailing list today.


Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 2; March 04

Major Article

Language impaired?

Claire Ozel, Middle Eastern Technical University, Ankara, Turkey clair@metu.edu.tr

  1. Meaning: without language no information is received, so I am vulnerable
  2. Skill and Strategies: I am not aware of what to do
  3. The disinterested majority: monolinguals have no understanding of what I am experiencing
  4. Process: bi-linguals do not realise what information I have missed
  5. Awareness: people forget I do not understand; I look 'normal'
  6. Sifting through noise
  7. Guess-stress: I try to guess to fill the gaps
  8. Courage: how can I join in?
  9. Crowds: especially in a crowd ……….
  10. Exhaustion: eventually I turn off mentally
  11. Exclusion: I am conscious of being left out


A common learner type is that of the 'reasonably able but fairly reluctant', one who has not chosen the experience but has no choice in the matter: the language simply must be learnt. Analysis of the frame of mind of such a student is often reduced to 'lack of motivation'. This article considers the situation of such a learner as reflected through experience with a hearing-impaired student. Contrasting the response of an impaired student with that of unimpaired peers highlights factors that might otherwise not attract attention (Thomas, 2001). Observations are then seen to have parallels in other situations. This paper is a subjective reflection on similarities between my own experience years ago as a language learner and what I now see again in students with disabilities.

Two years ago I was asked before the start of the semester if I would take on a deaf student. I had had a number of experiences with the visually impaired but had no idea how I would manage this virtual opposite. While I had developed strategies to teach with minimal visual cues (Thomas, 2000), I would now have to maximize visual input, perfect blackboard use and remember never to talk while facing the board. Looking on the bright side, I felt I would not do worse than other teachers and I might learn something from the challenge. As I had guessed, she was the silent one who crept up to me at break to attempt to explain her situation to yet another new teacher. At least I was open, but I was a foreigner, the first she had ever met. For the first few weeks I took extensive notes about my observations, thoughts and feelings. I had no one to turn to, no experts to consult, and no texts to read. Emine and I simply had a go together, uncertain how to respond to each other, how much to trust or to demand. She knew what she could do and I had some idea of what she should be able to do; or so we thought. Over the next four months we were to readjust our expectations, break limits and surprise ourselves as we discovered a path towards realistic options.

Unaware of the complexity of factors, the implications of details, variations in mood or responses to events, I made assumptions, some inappropriate, some too definite. Emine was not a stereotype of 'deafness'; she was a person with the richness of a human character, who happens to be insensitive to certain wavelengths. A number of my assumptions turned out to be based on myths (see www.engelsiz.metu.edu.tr). Others originated from the comments of colleagues, who summed up their 'special' student in a couple of words: "Fine", "No problems"; a student was reduced to less than a sentence. Were these unsupported colleagues more capable than me? Or were they hiding their lack of confidence or competence behind a protective mask, denying reality, not wanting to look at the details for fear of seeing something they could not handle? I did not feel fine…

As I endeavored to see deeper than the immediately obvious and to understand the position in the class of this student with a difference, I had a growing sense of 'déja vu'. Attempting to empathize with Emine, I found myself recalling my early experiences of living in Turkey, specifically those relating to the loneliness and occasional despair of one attempting to express needs and opinions in another language. Emine herself commented that she often feels she is among people speaking a different language. I retrieved my 1991 notebook. Tackling the beginnings of what has now become my everyday means of communication, I had jotted down gut feelings and emotional outbursts triggered by linguistic immersion; while the front of the notebook recorded the language taught, the back still bristled with emotion.

Thirteen years ago, I was the semi-aware subject; I am now more experienced. More importantly, this time I was not directly the prime subject; indirectly involved, I was less susceptible to the emotional reactions that upset rational thinking. Emine's specific situation has allowed me to identify a number of points which may go unnoticed in a regular classroom but affect the learning process. Where her situation has mirrored mine, she has shed light on the challenges, the sensitivities and the needs of learners in general. In the following text, extracts from my 1991 notes are in italics to contrast with recent reflections based on my notes while teaching Emine, both in terms of the situation of a student with disability and that of regular language learners, and also of how I see my role as a teacher.

  1. Meaning: Without language, no information is received, so I'm vulnerable. As an adult language learner 13 years ago, I was suddenly made aware of how restricted language competence limited my options. Likewise, Emine's communication, specifically her auditory reception, is severely limited. By the time she lost her hearing at the age of 10, she was fluent in her mother tongue: her linguistic processing is not impaired. In my case, though I had access to the sounds I could not process them. The end result is the same: neither of us could access meaning or information.

As Emine's teacher, an early step was to create complementary communication. I had become aware that her lack of confidence stemmed partially from lack of certainty about what was going on in the class. To resolve this, we agreed on a number of discreet signals for communicating in class. This personalized sign language was not only a means of communication but also bonding and valuing of the individual. As her confidence grew, I relaxed, but not before noting that the need for information applied in both directions.

While Emine clearly needed access to the material taught, I realized I had a more subtle need for feedback. As a teacher, I need to know whether what I am presenting is reaching its target. Without feedback from the students in my class, I am liable to making incorrect assumptions about their learning. Until teaching Emine, I had not consciously valued students' facial expressions and postures, which reveal so much: the busy 'processing' mind, the confused, the 'Aha!' satisfied, the bored… While working with Emine, I was able to understand why the inscrutable few were undermining my confidence, and thus affecting my teaching.

The silent and the motionless were giving me no idea of whether I had explained enough, not enough or too much. The passivity of these marble statues drew energy from me as I scrutinized for indicators and attempted to chisel beneath the mask. Huntington (1987), a specialist working with the parents of young children with disability, describes the concept of 'readability', namely the extent to which behaviours are clearly defined and produce distinctive signals and cues. When a young child provides less than average feedback about their feelings and needs, the parent is less likely to be able to satisfy the child. In a similar manner, as a teacher, I rely on feedback, verbal or otherwise, to be able to satisfy the learners facing me. With this understanding, I am now able to explain to such students my need for them to let me know, at least with a blink of the eyelids, that they have grasped the point, so that I may move on.

  1. Skills and strategies: I'm not aware of what to do. Thirteen years ago I was aware of my desire to speak or at least to communicate, of the inadequacy of the teaching, of my helplessness, but without knowledge or guide I could go no further. Learners go through stages of awareness, progressing from lack of awareness, to awareness of lack of direction, on to awareness of direction and finally awareness of goal: the classic 'unconscious incompetent => conscious incompetent => conscious competent => unconscious competent'. Thirteen years ago I was at the second stage. Aware of not knowing what to do, I was attempting to discover my own path, one most certainly previously travelled by others.

    As Emine's teacher, I was able to see her need to develop compensatory strategies. The strategies Emine needed to learn relate not only to learning skills directly related to language acquisition, but also more general abilities that allow individuals to function effectively in society. While working with disabilities is a complex task, far beyond the remit of an unsupported language teacher, the need for compensatory strategies so obvious in students with special needs may also be seen in the majority of students. How many of our regular students come with a full range of well-balanced learning skills? Wouldn't many benefit from a course in learning skills?

    In special education, skills that are incidentally learnt by most children are scrutinized so that they can be explicitly taught, e.g. to visually impaired children (Wolffe, 1999). At university level, a number of institutions now offer services to students with disabilities to enable them to function effectively in a system designed for the majority. In an ideal education system, broad and flexible enough to address the needs of any student, a counsellor would assist each learner in analysing the skills they have mastered and consider ways of improving or compensating for the lesser-developed skills. In an ideal EFL situation, all learners would be counselled in skills to be developed or compensated for.

    1. The disinterested majority: Monolinguals - people who only know their mother tongue - have no understanding of what I'm experiencing.
      The situation of a language learner is alien to monolinguals. Likewise few able-bodied people are aware of the implications of disability. How much do the majority need to know about those who are different? How much does the minority need to explain?

    Language learning is not simply a logical process. Like all aspects of learning, it is susceptible to the effects of the chemicals that can flood through the blood stream at the flash of a threat or the excitement of stimulation. These chemicals (cortisol, adrenalin and others) modulate all experiences (Jensen, 1998). While the logical learning process can be read about in books, for a fuller understanding of the learning experience, a teacher needs to feel the rush of excitement or the suddenly blank memory when under threat, and recognise that performance fluctuations may be beyond learner control. As language teachers, we've all been requested to begin learning a foreign language, to experience a little of our students' fear, excitement, confusion and insecurity.

    Empathy is based on experience not just on theory: it demands getting into the person rather than simply observing the outside with logic; it involves emotions. Simulation, even brief, can generate a flow of emotions that can then be analysed. Although Emine spoke in front of the class only once in four months, her fifteen minute oral presentation about 'Living with deafness" was for many the most memorable time of that semester. Greater empathy reduces the risk of jumping to conclusions based on the visual shell, without consideration for what might be behind the mask.

    1. Process: Bilinguals, people fully conversant in both languages, do not realise what information I have missed; they comprehend automatically, without conscious thought of which language they are using. All my Turkish language processes are a conscious act: much more exhausting, without a reflex loop. All neural signals have to go the long way round, via the thinking brain. The human brain has the ability to handle multiple inputs by processing these in parallel; however, at a given time, only one thought can be 'concentrated on' at a conscious level. Language learning is biologically programmed for the early years (Obler, 1989). In terms of foreign language learning, the adult brain struggles to connect brain cells that in younger children are programmed to link automatically. Adults have lost the inborn language learning mechanism and grammar production ability that under-6s excel at and anyone in their early teens can still handle adequately (Pinker, 1994).

    Spoken communication, which in contrast to written language is acquired effortlessly, is usually taken for granted until the process breaks down (Sacks, 1989). In L1, hearing and listening do not have to be taught; reading does. Oral communication is automatic while reading is a conscious labour intensive process. Though the hearing impaired may compensate for lack of hearing by lip reading, this is no easy substitute. The situation of a lip reader may be partially understood if one considers what happens when one watches a subtitled film.

    1. Effort is needed to read the text. Reading requires more effort than listening, eyes locked onto the text and brain processing the symbols to extract meaning.
    2. - The text may not always be understood: too fast, or - white letters on a pale background - difficult to read. Some people can 'let go' and ignore what they have missed, but most of us are too used to being in control and knowing what is going on. Irritation at missing some of the words leads to anxious whispers to your neighbour for help - just like students in class.
    3. There is input mismatch, the sound track of music, sounds and tone of voice, contrasting with the robotic regularity of the typescript of the subtitles. The mind has to struggle to superimpose incompatible audio and visual input.
    4. One realises that in all of this one has missed those subtle facial expressions, the meaningful glances that give the uniqueness to the production and differentiate between a mechanical plot and a quality film.

    Thus a lip-reader has to focus on one point simply in order to get a message that others can get 'anywhere within ear shot'. In other words, a lip reader has to invest a lot more effort to extract information that others gather effortlessly.

    Likewise, some of us, whether unable to perceive sound or learn a language, are forever dependent on more laborious processing for what others do effortlessly via programmed neurological reflexes. Thus, the adult language learner struggles to comprehend new structures, to retrieve vocabulary, to construct sentences: to convey the meaning in the mind. While teachers tend to focus on accuracy and level of complexity, many learners may be satisfied when getting the meaning across. Other criteria become excess demands not justified intrinsically, external expectations not internalised other than as grades and scores. Too frequently, these produce stress, which short-circuits the thinking process.

    1. Awareness: People forget I do not understand: I look 'normal'. While something 'normal' is familiar, about which assumptions can be made, the unknown, on the other hand, is less predictable and demands more mental effort. Survival instincts developed over eons have led us to judge - or prejudge - a situation. Indicators such as body language and tone of voice are used to distinguish friend from foe. However, the impact is short-term; mental focus then moves on to newer stimuli, earlier ones becoming familiar. The mind habituates and takes less notice of 'known' elements, even though they may be masks hiding a different reality.

    In 1991, though I was obviously a foreigner, nothing in my appearance indicated my level of linguistic competence. Similarly, a confident lip reader, with an unobtrusive hearing aid and no knowledge of sign language, looks 'normal'. Emine confuses those around her 'She can't be deaf: she doesn't use sign language'. As Emine's teacher, I maintained my awareness during the semester. A rapid cost-benefit analysis reveals that the extra effort invested brings a number of benefits: increased student confidence and competence, and for the teacher knowledge, skills and satisfaction. While a degree of professional obligation demands that a teacher interact with each and every student entrusted to her, classmates are under no such obligation. Fellow classmates often forgot about Emine's situation and had to be reminded how to interact. Though my demand for a minimum level of respect in the class provided extrinsic need for basic awareness, only those intrinsically motivated got involved. Only the self-motivated went beyond the basics: those students with sufficiently developed interpersonal intelligence to grasp that they too could have a role (Gardner, 1993). Others were too distant and 'blind'.

    1. Sifting through noise: Language learners in the early stages have to sift through a lot of 'noise' for little or no meaning: great effort with little return. With my elementary Turkish vocabulary, I had built up a limited repertoire of known words. I could handle everyday "air and water" conversations. But when the subject deepened, I could only recognise some of the words. The rest were at best neutral, a burden of dead wood. But the wood could be thorny or poisonous. Formal language, for example, bristling with obscure structures and rarefied lexical items would be perceived as threatening, causing the brain to release more noxious chemicals.

    Adult language learners often have to come to terms with the fact that they no longer have the full control they are accustomed to. Many students often have difficulty in admitting they can get some partial meaning out of a reading or listening. Too used to the effortlessness of L1 and spoilt by the ease with which they glean information, they are now working with limits. This is particularly true of anyone learning 'live' in the country, exposed to a random selection of material at all levels, not 'designed with the learner in mind'. What goes through the mind of such a learner may have its parallels in someone hard of hearing, whose hearing aid picks up only a limited percentage of what is being said. Unfortunately, what is perceived has no relationship to need for meaning but rather airwaves, nerves and physical transmission. While the language learner is scanning for recognition within a limited memory store, those with impaired hearing grasp for anything that might make sense. While my original use of the word 'noise' was metaphorical, referring to the meaningless sounds of unknown words, anyone using a hearing aid finds that all sounds are amplified indiscriminately. Emine has full exposure to all sounds, unfiltered by the mechanism that allows the hearing to focus on sounds coming from a particular source. Whispering students, a humming OHP and traffic noise are all amplified as much as the teacher's voice. Sorting among sounds is another demand for effort and thus a source of stress.

    1. Guess-stress: I try to guess to fill gaps. Gaps in meaning, vocabulary, syntax, relationships or intensity: some can be guessed easily and safely, but not all. Inaccurate guesses may be approximately correct or simply wrong, 'off target'. This margin of error, occasionally resulting in major misunderstandings, creates stress.

    What happens when someone can understand 70% of a conversation, whether as a lip-reader or an intermediate level language learner? One gets the general outline, the gist; but the specifics often get blurred and confused or just ignored. Intermediate students are fine in a general conversation, on familiar topics. Repetition and paraphrase give a second chance to seize key items, allowing gaps to be filled. One complements with alternative strategies, or decides that what is missing is not so important. Subconsciously, however, the learner is aware of weaknesses. All appears fine on the surface until the weaknesses are pushed to their limits. Once the mind notices a mistake and confidence is damaged, recovery from emotional bruising may take time. One relief is that with practice one does get better at guessing. For lip-reading, this is true up to a point: certain sounds produced with identical lip movements (e.g. b and p) cannot be distinguished.

    1. Courage: How can I join in? It is all too fast! How do you jump onto a moving train? A foreign language speaker struggles to produce a sentence. The conversation moves on; the contribution may no longer be relevant, or if based on misunderstood input, inappropriate. The others, interrupted and distracted from their flow get irritated and the outsider is again pushed away. It takes courage to dive back in.

    I later learnt to claim my right for patience and understanding in group discussions. I have a stronger understanding of the valuable perception of someone with a difference. If my view, a different one, an outsider's perspective, is wanted, there is a price: I need a little more time, without interruptions, scorn or impatience. And so do others who are different. Most learners, people attempting new situations, need safe opportunities. While the occasional dare devil can jump into anything, other types of learners, the watchers, the thinkers, the planners need some degree of confidence that they will succeed. They may need to be explicitly made aware of the need and taught appropriate strategies.

    1. Crowds: Especially in a crowd... The common reaction in crowds is striking: both the language learner and those with hearing impairment suffer disproportionately when facing more than one interlocutor. We lose the security of the known single source; while the language learner loses control of the pace of the conversation as native speakers get carried away and forget to speak in simple structures, the hearing impaired are confronted with unpredictable changes of speaker, with some speaking simultaneously: no one can read two pairs of lips at one time.

    An active EFL classroom is a specific type of crowd. In what is now considered to be a 'lively classroom', minimal teacher talk and multiple input from constantly changing sources minimizes predictability to enhance class stimulation. However, to the hearing-impaired, buffeted in all directions, such classes are over-stimulating.

    1. Exhaustion: Eventually, I turn off mentally. With minimal Turkish, after struggling to follow a conversation, I would find my mind drifting: the level was too high. Like a climber out of breath on too steep a slope, I would take a mental rest. I had also noted this switching off with blind students, at times too exhausted by daily challenges for any extra effort. A task was not necessarily something that they could not do, but it was simply too much, either in quantity or too intense in quality. To maintain motivation, stimulation must be at the correct level. If too high, as with the learner among natives or a special student in a non-adapted environment, the brain grinds to a halt.

    1. Exclusion: I am conscious of being left out excluded from situations, discussions, decisions; this can later build up into resentment. I was pushed back into pre-speech childhood; adults occasionally deigned to communicate in my language, when THEY chose, or if I demanded attention.

    However, unlike young children, adults are used to being actively involved. The sense of deprivation and loss of such a fundamental ability leave one lonely amid friends, forcing a new consciousness to arise amidst strong feelings: feeling excluded from the group, 'disabled', disempowered, demoted, forgotten, no longer counting and even dehumanized. While those who lose sight or hearing after early childhood have certain advantages in understanding concepts that others affected from birth can only imagine, they do have to come to terms with a sense of loss which, unlike that of a language learner, is usually irreversible (Sacks, 1989). The exclusion I experienced 13 years ago primed me to understand a little of what Emine might be going through.

    In conclusion

    Besides the practicalities of providing suitable language activities, a teacher needs to be aware of the psychological conditions essential for effective learning. Learners need to be able to explore and reflect on the experience. Entering new territory, the unknown, implies facing threats and risks, and making mistakes. A competent adult is expected to be able to handle such challenges, but no longer has the agility and psychological readiness of childhood.

    As language teachers, we are expecting adults to use a part of the brain that has essentially stopped functioning. Not only do students come ill equipped intellectually but many are not prepared emotionally for the perceived threats and emotions which can block the learning process. The operations of the mind are not visible: mind reading is not yet on the curriculum.

    To make a big difference to a learner in need a teacher does not have to be an expert: observe and listen without assuming. Probe beneath the surface; it may be a mask. Work with the student, who will be used to their own learning processes, though perhaps not be aware of how to improve them. Share the challenge and be humble enough to say" I don't know". You may be the first to notice.

    Huntington G.S. (1987), Assessing Child Characteristics That Influence Family Functioning. In 'Family Assessment in Early Intervention'. Bailey and Simeonsson
    Gardner H. (1993) Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. Basic Books.
    Jensen E. (1998) Teaching with the brain in mind. ASCD. Also see www.ascd.org
    Obler L.K. Language beyond childhood. In 'The development of language' J. Berko Gleason. Merrill.
    Pinker S. (1994), The language instinct: How the mind creates language. William Morrow.
    Sacks O. (1989) Seeing voices. University of California Press.
    Thomas C.S. (2000) Beginners in the dark. 6th METU EFL Convention
    Thomas C.S. (2001) Give me mistakes. old.hltmag.co.uk/sep01/index.htm
    Wolffe J. (1999), Skills for Success: A Career Education Handbook for Children and Adolescents with Visual Impairments. American Federation of the Blind

    Back to the top