Harnessing the Power of Fear

teacher teaching2 Harnessing the Power of Fear In part two of this series regarding my argument for why e-learning language instruction models are inferior to traditional teacher-based models of language instruction, I discussed how e-learning language instruction models contradict the very way language was intended to be used and learned.  In part three, I’ll discuss how e-learning removes a very critical, beneficial element of the language learning process, fear.  Fear in the language learning process serves a function that I liken to the function that good bacteria serves in our digestive tract.  Good bacteria actually forms one of our first lines of defense against bad bacteria.  These days, people are starting to become aware of the fact that all of our excessive use of antibiotics is actually starting to weaken our immune response because we are killing our good bacteria along with the bad bacteria.  Why do we keep abusing the use of antibiotics then?  We abuse the use of antibiotics because it’s simple.  We don’t have the patience to wait for our own body’s immune response to work so we decide to take antibiotics to “get better” more quickly.  Of course I recognize that there are some circumstances in which it’s ill advised not to take antibiotics but what I’m referring to is their abuse.

What does this have to do with e-learning language instruction models?  Well, they bypass the use of the very valuable tool of fear.  Fear is the “good bacteria” that comes with traditional language learning models.  What exactly do I mean by that?  When we communicate in person there is always an unpredictable element of the unknown that is uncomfortable.   It’s quite normal for people to feel at least a little uncomfortable whenever an element of uncertainty is present.  In many situations, it can go beyond just mere uncertainty and manifest as outright apprehension, nervousness, and fear.  The most obvious example of this is with public speaking where a very large percentage of the population is patently phobic about such situations.  One famous survey revealed that fear of public speaking actually outranked death as the number one fear.  This would probably explain why most people hide behind Powerpoint presentations and read their boring text prompts on the screen rather than standing in the forefront and using Powerpoint strictly as a visual aide to accompany their presentation.

This “uncertainty principle” also shows up when it comes to directly communicating with people in their own language much less when communicating to someone in a second language.  When we first learn a second language as an adult (or even as an older child), it feels very awkward, frustrating, and embarrassing because we feel so inadequate communicating to someone in the second language.  A lot of times, we can feel downright stupid.  This is normal and it’s reality.  It’s a reality, however, that an e-learning-based environment can never duplicate or create.  When learning in an e-learning-based environment, there is never any fear of making a mistake because we know a computer doesn’t care and will never laugh at us.  Some may argue that that is actually good but it’s not.  It’s not beneficial because it doesn’t prepare you for reality which is where a language is actually spoken.  In a traditional teacher-based learning environment, there is an element of uncertainty that is present.  If you make a mistake, it’s going to be in front of a teacher or your fellow classmates.  There is the risk of embarrassment.  Embarrassment, however, is not bad in this case.  It is the risk of making a mistake or being embarrassed that keeps you engaged.  It is also this risk that serves to build up your linguistic immune system just like good bacteria and inoculate you for exposure to language in the real world.  It won’t prevent you from embarrassing yourself but it will at least prepare you in a way so that it doesn’t seem so unfamiliar.  The risk of making mistakes, embarrassment, and the element of uncertainty in general are the positive aspects of the traditional teacher-based language learning model that keep you engaged.  They force you to actively use your mind and to think on your feet because in a traditional language learning environment, the language is alive as you are interacting with real people and the way that they respond to you can be unpredictable, just like real communication happens in the real world.

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