My former students still speak to me in English

I am an English as a Second Language teacher, and my former students always speak to me in English. Even those who attended my class over ten years ago. Their mother tongue (at least for most of them) is French; so is mine. Yet, whenever I encounter one of them in town or on social media, they address me in English. 

Like many university lecturers, I’m sure, I did not receive much formal training when it came to teaching. But I sought advice from senior lecturers and reflected upon what had worked with me when I was a student myself. One thing I got from that was that foreign language acquisition worked much better with teachers who only spoke the language that they were teaching whenever they spoke to their students. A colleague of mine, a lady who had been teaching Italian for over three decades, once told me, “you know, there has to be an emotional link to the language you’re learning; there has to be something that ties you to it.” It really stuck with me. So I thought, well, if my students associate me, my own person, with the language I’m trying to teach them, maybe it will be easier for them to engage in spontaneous conversation, even if it is just with me. 

I was assigned a group of freshmen on my first day on the job. To give you an idea of the level, one of the requirements to join such a class at the time was to be sufficiently autonomous in the language to be able to express an opinion. So I told them that they would speak English and English only in my class. As they were just out of high school, and maybe because they naturally felt like testing my limits, I enforced that policy by threatening them with punishment: if I heard them speak French in my class, whether it be to me or amongst themselves, the culprit would have to come forward, stand by the blackboard, and sing a song of my choosing. I never thought I would have to make good on that threat. I naively thought that warning them would be enough. Until on the second day, a student spoke French. 

Let me tell you that in the course of the past ten years, I have learnt all there is to know about the ever-changing musical tastes of your average freshman. At first, having them sing anything by Justin Bieber was regarded as so humiliating that no student would ever take that chance. Whenever it happened, the entire group cheered. A couple of years later, Bieber had apparently become a household name and no one found it particularly ridiculous to have to sing one of his songs in front of the rest of the class. I had to move on to ABBA, which for some reason students consistently disliked, until one year a student told me that he had never heard of them. Then I had to get creative and ended up outsourcing the punishment by having the class decide which song would be assigned to whoever had spoken French, and oh boy, did they enjoy that. It was all done in good fun, and I often pretended I didn’t hear it if a particularly introverted student had broken the rule. I’m not a monster.

Yet, my former students still speak to me in English. Most of them have since obtained their master’s degrees and joined the workforce, many of them in prestigious institutions. If I saw one of them on the street and they said bonjour instead of “hello”, I definitely wouldn’t ask them to sing Baby by Justin Bieber or any similar eternal masterpiece of popular music; I assume that they know this — or at least, I hope that they know. Yet, they always speak to me in English. I like to think that it is because whenever they see me, they still think not just of English but in English. Maybe my Italian colleague was right. Maybe it does work better if you allow second language acquisition to transit through emotions before directing it to the intellectual level.

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