How to Combat Language Fatigue in the Classroom


The frustrations of language fatigue can cause some people to stay silent far too long.

In my own life, I’ve found that I am frequently exhausted by the constant translating I’m performing in other languages. Until a person is truly fluent, that’s what they’re doing…translating.

When someone speaks to me in Mandarin (or Spanish or French) I have to slowly go through each word in the sentence to translate it into English before I can think of how to respond. Once I understand what’s being said, I can usually come up with a relatively accurate response quickly, but the translating causes tremendous lag in the conversation. It’s frustrating! Being unable to communicate at a complex level is enough to reduce a person to silence.

The result of the translating, for me, is similar to that of staring at a computer screen for several hours. I sort of get tunnel vision and feel tired and feel numb. I used to see this look on the faces of my students all the time. The glazed over eyes that seem to beg “no more!” I’m able to sustain about 45 minutes before the mind-numbing effect kicks in. Perhaps it’s the forming of dendrites and new neuro-pathways that causes the sleepiness, but it makes me want to give up and put my head down.

Help your students deal with language fatigue

When your students are putting their heads down in class, it’s because they need a break. That break can still be in English, but it needs to be less cognitively demanding. You could:

  1. Play a game. If you notice that the same student puts his head down at the same time every day, plan a short review game as your wrap-up activity. Make it shorter week after week. I like for students to create games and make every Thursday a review day. Students can pair up and create games for the class to play together.
  2. Watch some TV. Download a commercial or video clip about your topic. Maybe even include subtitles.
  3. Include skits or conversation. Find a way to get students talking about your topic using the new vocabulary you’ve introduced them to. Even a math class can have a skit. I know it’s hokey, but it’s true. Let 5 meet 6 and gossip about how 7 ate 9. I know you’re supposed to be teaching calculus, but there’s space for taking the pressure off for a few minutes.
  4. Let the students teach. They can teach about their country or prepare a presentation. They can even just be the person to write on the board. It’s a helpful exercise to practice dictation.
  5. Take a break.You could have class outside for a day. Or, take a walk around the school for a scavenger hunt, or take a bathroom break, or give the kid 5 minutes to put his head down! If I notice students are getting headaches, I turn the overhead lights off and turn lamps on. Anything that gives a person’s sensory overload some time off.

One final thought.

Learn another language. Language teachers have a tendency to introduce students to a culture as they teach the language, so learning another language will give you great insight into the struggles your students have in your classroom!

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