ESL proficiency can VARY even within one CONVERSATION


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I had an interesting conversation the other day with someone who didn’t speak English well….or did they? Well, I had to work that out after she’d left. Why? During one conversation I found she had ‘waves’ of perfect English then ‘waves’ of seemingly gobbledegook!

So let’s go deeper on this.

Firstly, she was someone applying for a job, so she had to (and knew it herself), present herself in a very professional way. Perhaps she had picked up a few phrases here and there and had practiced them to be impressive with that ‘first impression’ she needed to make. Well she certainly succeeded on that one. But very soon after I could see her confidence drop, and as a result she slipped right back into her broken English. This made me think about the acquisition of English and how it emerges in someone.

But the story doesn’t end there. I realized that perhaps she could speak good English on things that she was confident about and poor English on things she wasn’t. I asked myself – is the quality of English based on confidence? Something that isn’t new. But soon I could see she was not confident about something I asked her, and suddenly her English became strong and perfect again.

Honestly it was like the weather in my home country. Within 30 minutes you could have all four seasons without any rhyme or reason. It seemed that whichever way the wind blew, the change would happen.

Her English varied yes, but actually I finally realized that it wasn’t purely about having confidence speaking English, it was more about honesty. When she was being honest, strangely enough her English improved also.

So when a person feels they can be honest with you, there somehow has been some trust built. Trust that you can say quite clearly what you mean. This definitely has some confidence intermingled in there too, but it also goes back to what the person actually feels deeply, and because they realise it is important to say what they need to say so that you can understand them better, they pull out all their ‘real’ English from the depths of their soul.

I realized ultimately that she had somehow, somewhere learned some great English, and from a great teacher, but unfortunately she had not had a long enough ‘stint’ in using her English proficiently to sustain that ‘warm and cosy ongoing fluency’.

Unfortunately for this girl, she didn’t get the job, but she did give me a very interesting ‘ESL listening’ experience, and helped me to understand the true nature of acquiring and using a foreign language.

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