I have a new student this semester who recently moved here from Mexico. Both her spoken and written English are rather exceptional and she is an incredibly hard worker. Sometimes I forget that English is her second language when I read her writing. While reading her reflective letter for her Unfamiliar Genre Project, a transition at the beginning of one of her sentences immediately reminded me that English isn't her first language. The word was "firstable." I share this not to make fun, but to commend her for attempting to use a transition in the first place (something many students still struggle with). My guess is that she hears native speakers say "first of all" in rapid fire and therefore the words aren't enunciated when she hears them and so she interprets it as one word, "firstable."
It's easy for us to forgive this error because English is not her native language, but upon further reflection, why aren't we more forgiving with our native speaking students? English might be their first language, but they are still learning too -- and a difficult language at that -- one with more exceptions than rules. We have to remember that students aren't born with a rule book imprinted in their brains. They learn by making errors. We need to curb our frustrations when we come across them because if they're not making errors then they may as well not be learning.
When my husband and I lived in Germany, I was deathly afraid to make a mistake when I was learning the language because I didn't want people to laugh at me. So I understand how fragile minds can be when we project frustration and mockery on our students. And you know what that fear got me? An inability to become fluent in German. My husband was fearless and became fluent in 6 months.
So I want to ask you this question: Is our view of how pure and rule-abiding language should be preventing our students from even becoming fluent in their own native languages? Do students see language as only an endless set of rules, and not as a means of communication, expression, maybe even innovation? Are we creating a classroom of fearful or fearless students?