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A Man Of (Love) Letters


Jean-Marc Dewaele talks to Claudia Civinini about the power of emotions - and swear words.
Love, anger, anxiety: this is not a summary of Wuthering Heights, but some of the key words on the publication list of Dr Jean-Marc Dewaele, professor of applied linguistics and multilingualism at Birkbeck, University of London. This quadrilingual Belgian-born academic has interests ranging from foreign language anxiety to code-switching. And one of his core interests is how we express a range of emotions, from love to anger, in another language. Given the significance that his research could have for teachers, the ­Gazette met him to chat about the power of emotions in the classroom.

People’s feelings are a key to learning, but how can teachers harness their power? Interest is vital, Dewaele explains, and if students are not emotionally invested they will not learn as well. It is crucial to arouse our students’ interest in the foreign language in a way that is not too obvious. The aim is for them to forget they are doing an activity in a foreign language at all’, he says. ‘We should teach our students to write love letters more than essays on global warming,’ he adds.

This approach can help particularly with the daily grind of language learning, such as grasping key aspects of grammar. It has to be learnt in context, Dewaele says, and in a fun way. That will show them that grammar is not something abstract, but relevant and necessary. ‘If you write a love letter, you’d better make sure you get the grammar right!’ he points out.

And how about the teacher’s emotions in the classroom? ‘When I started teaching I had a chagrin d’amour [heartbreak],’ he says, ‘and I noticed that the only time I was less miserable was when I was in the classroom, when I was totally focused on teaching.’ Teachers are actors, according to Dewaele. They need to convince their audience and be in the present.

This is also key in establishing a good relationship with the students, the basis for good classroom management. Arguments of authority don’t work. ‘Can you win them over with your bare hands? That’s the task,’ he explains.

But is there a secret formula? ‘Confidence, optimism, modesty, humour – and knowledge, of course,’ he says. ‘And it is easy for non-teachers to underestimate how tiring this is.’ But in the end all this pays off. If you pretend you are having a good time, chances are you’ll end up having a good time – and your students will, too.

Sometimes, though, students experience negative emotions. One of them is foreign language anxiety (see here). How can teachers manage it? According to Dewaele, the most important thing is to establish a culture of respect and solidarity in the classroom, where everyone is respected for who they are, even if they are anxious.

A second tip, after having created a safe environment, is to encourage anxious students to contribute step by step, and to then specifically praise them for their contributions. This step-by-step approach with positive feedback can also help with the increased cognitive load that anxiety can create for students. ‘Teachers can’t change a student’s personality,’ Dewaele says. ‘If a student is anxious they won’t be able to make him not anxious, but anxiety doesn’t need to be an insurmountable obstacle.’

Anxious students can still be helped to learn. And anyway, apparently there is no personality type more or less connected with good language learning. ‘There is no typical profile for millionaires – it’s the same for language learners,’ he explains. ‘How good they become is more linked to motivation, work habits and lots of different things.’

Dewaele is fascinated by emotions and language, but does he himself feel different when he speaks in another language? He said he doesn’t, but that research he carried out on more than 1,000 multilinguals highlighted that most people do. For some people, this means not feeling as confident, and for others, feeling much freer. People can also experience feelings of difference because they may use a language in a certain context, he says. ‘I feel more academic in English than I do in Dutch or French because those are the languages I use at home with my wife and daughter, and I normally don’t discuss academic matters with them.’

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And what made Dewaele carry out all the research about swearing habits in a foreign language? The professor tells how he called a Greek colonel something akin to ‘imbecile’ in Greek because he had been tricked into believing that it meant something else. ‘Thankfully he realised I was just a fool, and I didn’t end up in prison,’ he said, laughing. ‘I remember being so intrigued by the fact that this funny word that didn’t mean anything to me could have so much power. It’s like shooting a gun without realising it is a gun, and then finding out you actually killed someone.’ This, he said, was what got him thinking about expressing emotions in a foreign language – and the unspoken rules that go with it. ‘If you have a foreign accent,’ he explains, ‘the effects of your words will never be the same of those of a first-language user – you won’t be judged according to the same criteria.

‘[This is the case] especially if you swear, as people might think that, as a foreigner, you don’t know the exact meaning and emotional resonance of the word and may be more inclined to excuse you.’ So, next time you need to insult someone in a foreign language, you should just play up your accent? ‘Don’t take me up on that!’ he warns.

Given their cultural significance, should we teach swear words? ‘They are a crucial aspect of sociopragmatic competence,’ he says, ‘but the trouble is, they can’t be included in the curriculum as they are not politically correct. However, students need to be aware of swear words, they need to know they are “red flag” words and that, as second-language speakers, they don’t have the same linguistic rights as first-language speakers.’

Swearing aside, what would Dewaele like to see change about foreign language learning overall? ‘It would be great to make language teaching more efficient,’ he said. ‘The one thing I find so dispiriting is meeting people in different countries who have had years of foreign language education and are unable to have a basic conversation.’

He pledges to keep working on this problem. ‘I won’t change the world,’ he says, ‘but I am having fun.’

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Jean-Marc Dewaele CV
– Professor of Applied Linguistics and Multilingualism at Birkbeck, University of London.
– General editor of the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism.
– President of the International Association of Multilingualism.
Winner of the Robert C. Gardner Award for Excellence in Second Language and Bilingualism Research (2016) from the International Association of Language and Social Psychology.
– He holds a collection of MAs (Spanish, Romance Philology, International and European Law, Eastern European Affairs, Language Pathology) and a PhD in Romance Languages from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium.
– He also won the humorous award for ‘Most obscene title of a peer-reviewed scientific article’ with his research ‘Christ fucking shit merde!’ Language Preferences for Swearing Among Maximally Proficient Multilinguals (2013).