Leading up to IATEFL Birmingham from 13th – 16th of April, we asked our delegates to preview their scheduled talks for our blog readers. Today we’re joined by Sarah Mercer who will discuss ‘Exploring psychology in language learning and teaching’ at the conference on Wednesday April 13th.
How we approach language learning, whether as a learner or a teacher, is crucially defined by our psychology; the way we view ourselves and our abilities, our motivation for engaging with or persisting in tasks, our beliefs about how the language should be learned and taught, our emotional experiences of the undertaking, and our relationships with others. It is important that we understand how our thoughts, motives and feelings can affect how we learn and teach. As such, the field of psychology represents a rich and important source of information for teachers to enhance their practice and their sensitivity to their own and their learners’ needs.
In my own work to date, I have focused largely on the psychology of language learners. As teachers, it is important that we reflect on how we understand our learners as individuals. How an individual engages with learning a language is less dependent on the materials and subject knowledge of their teacher, but is rather more connected with their teacher’s interpersonal skills and ability to create motivating and enabling learning conditions in the classroom. As an example, a key facet of language learners’ psychology is their self-concept, which is what they believe and feel about themselves as language learners – do they feel confident in their skills? Do they feel comfortable using the language? Do they believe they are able to improve their skills? All of these beliefs and emotions impact on the learner’s motivation and behaviours. As teachers, we can work on creating the right kinds of conditions in our classrooms for our learners to develop healthy self-related beliefs which ensure they are in the best position to learn a language to the best of their ability.
However, one thing I have increasingly become aware of is that teacher and learner psychology are in fact two sides of the same coin. As social beings, we are all aware of the moods, emotions and beliefs of those around us, especially those we are close to or respect. For classroom life, this means the teacher has an enormous influence on the psychology of the students they work with. In turn, teachers are influenced by the moods of their learners and the atmosphere in the group. To start a positive cycle of interactions in the classroom, we need to ensure that as teachers we have high levels of professional well-being alongside positive personal and professional psychology. Only when we are in the right frame of mind for teaching can we ensure our learners are provided with the best conditions in which to develop their own positive attitudes, emotions, motivations, and engagement.
In the end, psychology for language learning is not just about the psychological well-being of our learners, although this will always remain a prime focus, but it is also about the psychology of teachers and how we can ensure that they thrive in their jobs, for their own sake as well as for that of their learners.