(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
In her book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers, Amy Sutherland describes how “progressive” animal trainers help animals who may feel nervous about anything new or that they are not accustomed to. One way is called desensitizing. She explains, “When you counter-condition, you take a negative experience and make it a positive one by pairing it with something good.”
She gives the example of a cavy, which is a South American rodent, who was terrified of the humans at the animal training school. Anytime that it needed vet care, it had to be caught, which meant chasing it around its cage, and this made it even more terrified of humans. The animal trainer set up a counter-conditioning. Each day she would enter the cavy’s cage and move just an inch closer. If the cagy didn’t hide behind a bush, the trainer would reward it with an alfalfa pellet. Overtime, the cavy allowed the trainer to come closer and closer, until one day the animal ate some pellets right out of the trainer’s hand.
I realized that desensitizing our ESL students to a “negative experience” could help them become more open to using an important technique, just as it helped the cavy.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that.”
For many language learners, it seems so hard to say this or a similar phrase. For some, it can be embarrassing to appear less proficient than others (e.g. classmates) seem to be. Some don’t have confidence that they’ll understand even if their interlocutor repeats slower or rephrases what was said. Others don’t want to take up the other person’s time having to explain or simplify what they had just said.
I, myself even as an adult, was like this when I was trying to navigate my way around France or Japan. If the situation wasn’t dire, I usually just nodded like I understood and thanked them. But at times, when I really needed the information, I put aside my ego when I couldn’t understand and said in French or Japanese, “Excuse me. Could you repeat that?” To my amazement, nine out of ten times, the people adjusted their speech by speaking more slowly, and/or used easier vocabulary, pantomimed, and sometimes even used some English. Over time, I became desensitized to those negative emotions I had felt about saying, “I didn’t understand.”