In school, we’re programmed to think that the really talented people get the top grades. And when we don’t get the grades we were hoping for, it can feel like a sign that maybe that subject just isn’t for us. We start to tell ourselves that we’re “just not good at French”, and we carry that around as part of our identity long after we leave school.
If this sounds like you, then I want to offer you a new perspective.
Your grades are often filtered by your emotions
For some of us, the problems started as soon as the classes started. You might have reached the conclusion early on that you were just really, really, bad at English. You might have hated the lessons or the classroom or the teacher. But as soon as class began, you switched off.
For some of us, it was test anxiety. You might have understood the material when you’re in class, but as soon as the exams started, your mind went blank. Somehow, you could just never perform on the day.
Both of these situations are examples of the ‘the affective filter’ in the language teaching world (after the term was coined by a linguist named Stephen Krashen). In short, when you start to feel anxiety, fear, or embarrassment, those emotions act like a filter that interferes with the whole learning process. Your mental and emotional states can have a huge impact on how well you perform.
Exams are often a test of fundamental study skills
Sometimes, when exams go wrong, it’s not because you didn’t study or didn’t know the material. It’s because you didn’t know how to study effectively for that subject. Perhaps you tried to cram the whole term’s revision into one weekend. Perhaps you weren’t using techniques that worked for you. Perhaps you missed a whole part of the syllabus because you focussed heavily on one topic. Perhaps you had to prepare for exams in all your subjects at the same time, and you didn’t have a regular study plan, so it all got a bit chaotic and muddled.
In any case, none of this has anything to do with your innate language learning abilities, and everything to do with understanding how to prepare for exams. Which takes us onto our next point…
Exams are a box-ticking exercise
Take the case of the Bilingual Students.
These students were fluent. They used French every single day at home. Perfect accents, expansive vocabulary, could express themselves freely. But time and time again, they were coming out with low or middling grades.
The thing is, when you enter into any school or exam, you’re entering into a system. It tells you what content you’ll need to learn, how you’ll be tested, and offers you tips and tricks to get you to pass the test.
My Bilingual Students refused to play the game.
French conjugation is largely silent. The spelling changes, the sounds often don’t. These bilingual students were strong speakers, but hardly ever read or wrote in French at home. This meant that they wrote phonetically. As such, they weren’t ticking the boxes for verb conjugations, even the present tense. They weren’t ticking the boxes for verb agreement or adjective agreement. They weren’t scoring marks for basic grammar.
The second problem was, they answered speaking questions with exactly what they thought. But the thing is, the examiners didn’t care what they thought. They didn’t get extra points for relatability or who hates their town the most. Those questions are just a prompt to get students to showcase their knowledge of past, present and future tenses, negatives, opinion phrases, and subjunctives. But they weren’t including these things. In the eyes of the examiner, not using them was tantamount to not knowing them.
You’re not in school any more.
Guess what? You’re not in school any more! You aren’t working to a curriculum, you’re not trying to keep up with every other student in the country, and nobody is going to be sending report cards home about you.
You have control of what you learn, how you learn, and how you measure your own successes. So, find out what works for you and do that. Do it over and over again till it gets boring or stops working, and then find something else.
We all have stories of times when things didn’t work out. We all have memories of failure, and we’ve all been criticised by someone who should have known better. But we also have stories of times when we achieved things that surprised ourselves and other people. And now, you can set out your language learning the way you want to, learn at your own pace, and set your own goals. You’re in a better position than ever to learn successfully.
How about you give it one more go? Maybe you are good at language learning after all?