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Learning (a (second) language) = Learning (to breathe) (again)

Meaningful Repetitive Practice

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About two weeks ago I was forced to stop blogging because I had to teach myself to breathe again. A heartburn incident somehow turned into a chronic issue that prevented me from talking, sleeping, working, concentrating, eating nutritiously and (I came to realize) eventually, surviving… In short, while sleeping, I had forgotten how to breathe normally, and acquired a reversed breathing process which, I eventually learned, is called ‘air swallowing’ – the one tracheotomy patients are taught so that they can speak via belching air.

Sometime during my effortful slog back to life on Earth, I noticed that that slog had quite a few things in common with the one classroom language learners endure, sometimes with equally dire consequences of failure. Here I try to keep the allegory clear, entertaining, and enlightening, with a bunch of teaching/learning questions I want to act on in the coming weeks and months.

1. Lack of awareness

For the first two days I wasn’t worried. Indigestion, I assumed. I’d eaten a ton of greasy, garliced, chillied duck the night before it started. That’s what my unskilled private tutors (all the websites on the 1st pages of relevant search results) were telling me. But by the third day of zero progress I got frustrated. I couldn’t figure out why my breathing system wasn’t moving up the proficiency scales. When I was alone, and in certain positions (low affective filter) I was getting enough air to survive and felt relatively comfortable, but there were frequent moments of utter seizure in which everything just stopped, like when I had to talk to people at length, or eat hard food, or try to sleep. In these moments, breathing wouldn’t start again without a gasp. Hiccoughs were mostly constant. On the third day, with just these observations, I sought my first ‘teacher’ (doctor). He, assuming I was like every other beginning breathing student, just smiled, said ‘this is normal’, gave me some mechanical homework (pills) and scheduled my next ‘class’ for three days later.

On the ACTFLB proficiency scale, this was fossilized novice-high breathing. Minimally capable in the simplest situations, incapacitatingly inaccurate, and with the dimmest of futures. Do the two learners I’m thinking of who fit this description lack this same awareness? If so, do they care? Why do they come to class if they do all their writing via google translate? I’ve asked, assisted, urged, encouraged peer-support… How do I avoid being the above doctor? It is true that I have not figured out how to help them.

2. Intrinsic motivation and anxiety, and teacher intent

Not making progress, I was increasingly alarmed.  A dog walk in the park had ended in near-collapse when a person who knew me started a conversation. She got a phone call just as a seizure was coming, but even so I had to cover the severity of it and wave goodbye. I’m sure she could tell something was wrong. Highly motivated because I was desperate for sleep (effective, more accurate use of breathing), I became an independent learner. At this point I knew this problem couldn’t be solved without understanding it. Still, my search began in blindness for materials that might help me learn more about it. The only thing I could conclude from this research was that my problem wasn’t normal; indigestion subsides.12930194

On the fifth day, unable to work (even with reduced t-talk) and determined to conquer this shortcoming, I went in search of better teachers (doctors), still trying to understand this tool I was struggling to use. They helped me understand what my problem was notKnowing what an item isn’t  is essential for its acquisition, and my visit with them was reassuring and somewhat restorative (IV drip, increased understanding). They also helped me understand how anxious and fearful I had become. I had a seizure in the office, and the doctor leaned in, put a hand on my knee, and said “you don’t have to worry about this, just let it out.” I was surprised by how grateful for her compassion I was. Here I was, struggling so hard to do something she was so good at, and even while I was failing and utterly frustrated at my own inability, she had nothing but compassion for me. This was a turning point in my illness, because she made me aware, without lecturing, of the possibility that stress was inhibiting my ability to progress.

I wonder if my more nervous students understand how nervous they are as they try to use their English in my classes? Do they feel my compassion? Or do they feel my frustration when my best intentions fail them? Do I prioritize my respect for their fears and their need for my patience and love? Do I feed, or alleviate their anxiety?

3. Noticing & Discovery

That afternoon and evening I stayed calm and breathing proficiency seemed to improve, though I had no idea why. I suspected the new mechanic (drug) was helping, so with this scaffolding I had hope that my illness would slowly pass. I even managed to fall asleep, but I awoke twice with the same hiccoughing and breathing problems.  I analyzed my shortcomings (increasing self-awareness) and compared my characteristics with others in my peer group (reading of symptoms and strategies) and diagnosed my problem as ‘trapped gas’. Could I have reached an Intermediate proficiency level? While awake, I made a shopping list of hiccough and belching home remedies: club soda, mint/chamomile tea. 

In the morning, with a few hours of real sleep helping me to feel a little bit more like a functioning member of society (yes, Intermediate), I went shopping. Throughout the day I practiced using my new tool in authentic situations. I was able to control nearly all of the breathing problems, eat normally, have short minimally problematic interactions in everyday contexts. Belching continued, but applying the club soda strategy prevented it from interfering with daily operations.

However, that evening a couple of stressful situations hit — the coming need to confront the ordeal of sleep, and a work/home planning project that was problematic. Suddenly I noticed that all my breathing patterns were screwed up again, proving that individual, isolated practice isn’t sufficient for acquisition — how had that happened? Stress? Distraction? Unable to work or plan, I got on my exercise bike and exercised until I was relaxed again. This worked, but I had to conclude that my ‘trapped gas’ diagnosis was flawed.

As a learner, I had noticed that I needed to be both relaxed and concentrated in order to improve my breathing, and that my tool-use failed in high-stakes situations. Fluent and accurate use of the tool still depended on my ability to focus on it, and even then my success was intermittent. Still, I was encouraged, as improving my breathing seemed to be largely up to me.

Do my learners know that improving their English is largely up to them?  Do they understand that they have to concentrate on it, stay relaxed, and apply strategies to assist themselves? The answers here are certainly mixed, but as a teacher, I need to reflect on how to increase the amount of ‘yeses’ I can get out of any one group of students.

4. MINIMAL, just-in-time input followed by task-based learning

Sure enough, despite feeling calm and better, that night the hiccoughs started as soon as I lay down to rest, as if my body didn’t trust me to keep breathing while I slept. My mind told me, very calmly, that I would not sleep that night, that my body was afraid. Appropriate breathing (tool use) was still a conscious effort. Breathing-while-sleeping was a task that required scaffolding before it could be done independently.  But why??? For 45+ years it had never been a problem… 

I went back to my bike (the successful strategy) and the Internet, highly motivated to understand what was blocking my path to the next proficiency level.  I read forums populated by commiserating 20-year veterans of chronic belching whose doctors had no answers for them. They didn’t sleep, were unemployed… and scared the heck out of me. But eventually, on page 3 of the search results for “chronic belching” I found two items that told me exactly what I needed to know: what my body was doing, why it was doing it, and how it could be corrected. These items were published by doctors and therapists in reputable medical journals. As a breathing learner, I would have discounted these texts 5 days earlier, when I assumed I had a physical problem. However on day 5, this was perfectly timed, simple input — it very simply described my breathing pattern as a behavior disorder, not a physical illness, which meant blending a scaffolding device (drug) and meaningful repetitive practice could fix the problem.

The art of delivering the right input in the right amount, no more, no less must be a lifetime’s work for a teacher. How much care must be taken in choice of material and reading/listening task? This must be a key factor in what motivates the unplugged crowd, but if I had been completely unplugged, I would either still be belching today, or in a psych ward — I needed a T-fronted moment of carefully measured input in order to reach the next stage in my development as a breather.

5. Slowed, isolated, practiced, scaffolded, acquired

TB+FrameworkRight there on the bike, in a matter of minutes, at 4:30 AM of Day 6, just understanding that what had begun a week before as a true physical problem had, thanks to several days of practice, been acquired by my brain,  was enough to relieve the stress and allow me to start to correct the issue. The goal (what) and technique (how), were clear and appeared well within range — I just had to undo problems created by acquisition of my “2nd (breathing) language”. it only took about 15 minutes of slowed-down, meditative, self-correction to start to get it right on the bike, and the more success I felt, the easier it got.

But the bike is all about relaxation and a low affective filter. The bed was the true test. I lay there, stared at the wall, meditated some more… and did it! No hiccoughs, lying down.

In ACTFLB terms, I must be Advanced now, and the success-oriented approach to practice was key.  I had an hour to drift off to sleep… and immediately started hiccoughing again. My body still wouldn’t let me go to sleep…

Why couldn’t I let myself go? Is there an unconscious fear of failure that blocks my learners from taking their next steps? Is success-orientation the key here? Do my learners need more time and evidence to agree to this success-oriented approach? Is that why they still ask me on every project whether the project is “pass-fail” or “ABCD”? Am I paying enough respect to this facet of their expectations/beliefs?

6. Scaffolding for the final levels…

So I was a master breather everywhere except in sleep. Work was back to normal (if a bit wacked due to no sleep for a week), and I headed back to the best doctor with a self-diagnosis and a plea (“I’ll handle the mental side, but can you give me something to handle the unconscious side?”). She gave me the hicoughing pill (baclofen — also recommended for those with alcohol addictions) and suggested I look into sleep apnea (known to cause air-swallowing). I took the pill one night only, and have been completely right as rain ever since. I have reaquired ACTFLB Superior proficiency!

This week I’ll find out if the sleep apnea thought is confirmed. I suspect (am certain) it will be.


This acquisition process required a teacher at 3 different points.

1. My GP’s first successful moves were to relieve some of my anxiety as a learner (sufferer) and help me narrow my learning focus. This enabled me to begin to understand and demonstrate what I knew and what I didn’t.

2. With my increased command, a could then understand a master-teacher’s diagnosis and learning strategy at precisely the right moment.

3. I could thus all but complete the course, rise to a level of mastery that rivaled my GP’s, and agree with her on which piece was still missing. She in turn pointed me to the next area of study (sleep apnea).

Questions related to the 3 points above:

1. Could my primary role with novice learners be to relieve anxiety?

2. Is “just-in-time” input the only kind that works? Does Demand-High Teaching dispute this?

3. What skills do I need to help my students develop, and what skills do I need to help myself develop in order for us to achieve a community of practice like my doctor and I did?

Learning (a (second) language) = Learning (to breathe) (again)

Comments (2)

  1. To me, this whole episode and analogy screams “learner autonomy.” How much of your success can be attributed to your teacher (doctor), and how much of it can be attributed to your own reflection, recognition, and motivation to succeed (not die; sleep)? Students should have this same opportunity to take control of their own learning.

    Teachers (myself included) often focus too much on teaching content and not enough on teaching students how to learn. In the Korean context, students tend to be unfamiliar with controlling their own intellectual pursuits. With the proper encouragement and motivation, we can help them become lifelong learners, not test-takers (certificate-chasers). It doesn’t have to be a cakewalk, but it should be meaningful and empowering.

    Through reading students’ reflections on their own videos, it seems like their intrinsic motivation to do better is more powerful than my assessment. I bet that their self-grades of their microteachings would be much lower than the ones I gave. I think letting students develop themselves as much as they can, with our guidance, should be our ultimate goal. Our feedback should be measured and useful, as to encourage but also to make level/ability-appropriate corrections.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Adam. salient points, all. I like the idea that students’ instinct for autonomous learning can be nurtured, and agree that their own reflection is more valuable than their instructors’ assessments. For the past year now I’ve managed to withhold my comments until after the students’ have completed the reflective cycle. I’m glad to see others feel similarly. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

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