Words have power. Without being aware of it, we label our language skills and ourselves in ways that are often less than helpful. Time to change those labels.
When talking about our own ability with a language, we tend to apply labels. Although labels are useful in helping us to identify, they can also limit us. If you only use the word „fruit“ when you want to buy apples, bananas, oranges at a market, you will be there a long time. Likewise referring to someone’s (or your own) language skills as „good“ is not helpful in deciding the best course of action.
Label 1: „Good“ and „bad“ learner/language skills/level
This is the granddaddy of labelling and beloved of all language trainers when talking about their learners: „Johann is a good learner“, „Maria has good language skills“. What does „good“ mean? What can this person do that someone who is „bad“ cannot? It is totally subjective. As teacher trainer at a language institute, I forbade the trainers from using these words to describe other learners, instead making them clarify what this person can do. „In situation X, this person can express Y to a Z% of accuracy, fluency and appropriateness“. They weren’t happy about that. Old habits die hard.
Label 2: „Strong“ and „weak“, „strengths“ and „weaknesses“
If learning a language were the same as body building, then you could talk about „strengths“ and „weaknesses“. Finding out your „weaknesses“ is totally subjective and a great way for language schools to make money because no-one likes to be weak. Again, it is best to refer to the areas that people feel „comfortable“ in, where they have more „experience“. And so on. Likewise, when a language trainer/school talks about „analysis“ of your „strengths and weaknesses“, then you may be forgiven for feeling uncomfortable („Analysis? Oh my God“)
Label 3: „beginner“, „advanced“, „high level“ and „low level“
These are labels that are probably not as bad as labels 1 and 2 but still not helpful. Language schools like to place people into levels so that it is easier to provide them with courses. This makes sense but some people can feel bad about having a „low“ level. The question should be, what can this person do at the level at which they find themselves? The Common European Framework of Reference for languages is a much more accurate (but not perfect) and less judgmental way of defining someone’s level.
Label 4: „teacher“, „school“, „pupil“, „test“ and „homework“
Many language learners‘ first experience of English was in school. And the memories are often not positive. But now they are adults and business people. Let’s leave such terminology where it belongs – in school, with children. I personally prefer to refer to myself as a „trainer“ or a „coach“, my customers as, well, „my customers“ or as „training participants“, or in a group as „team members“, and the work they do outside the training „session“ (not „lesson“) as „preparation work“ or „work results“, or whatever seems appropriate.
What does this all matter, you may ask? For the learner, it helps them free their mind from the idea of learning English as being only connected to school. For the trainer, it means you become more aware of the motivational role you play – your feedback to your customer is more important than you think? For both, it will help balance out the power relationship and help your customer become an active creator of their own language success.