PERSONAL HUMANITY – navigating life

In “Being Human: the Problem of Agency”, Margaret Archer (2000) draws attention to the threat posed to humanity if individuals lose agency by being defined entirely by the society. The individual, she argues, is not dissolved by new social discourses, for there is a “continuous sense of self” that is intransitive, for we are each the “one and the same being over time” regardless of the family, ethnic and social ‘identities’ that we share across life (Archer, 2000, pp. 2,7). These considerations initially seem philosophical, and we don’t tend to think of our essential humanity as being under threat. However, when we meet displaced students or even local learners maturing through normal pressures of life, we soon realise how important it is to be able to affirm the fundamental verity and acceptability of human ‘being’. Identity is continuous and inviolable, not susceptible to constant social redefinition, even though cultural context, relationships and role may change dramatically.

Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) is a unique experience that confronts us with the difficulties, as well as the rich benefits, of intercultural communication. We are all well aware of some of the challenges involved. For myself, I re-studied high school German, after twenty years, before travelling to Europe. I now know the feeling of try to ‘join in’, but also of feeling helpless in another culture, both in expression and in understanding. I can sympathize with the discomfort of second language learners, particularly in the English context, where matters of speed, accent, vernacular, collocation and elision are likely to baffle the hearers.

A great many theorists and writers have mused endlessly on the mysteries of language and communication. A simple, daily discovery is that what goes out of the mouth is not necessarily what goes in the ear, for all sorts of reasons. To speak is to know how people hear; to teach is to know how people learn; to listen is to know what people mean; to love is to know who people are (own poetic jottings).

It has long been recognized that learning styles vary across students, and that teaching styles must adjust accordingly. Dr Richard Felder and Barbara Soloman (2005) have published a widely accepted and extremely useful view of students’ learning styles, highlighting that all learners fall on the spectrum somewhere between the two poles noted below.

SENSORY – focus on factsINTUITIVE – focus on meaning
VISUAL – focus on representationsVERBAL – focus on explanations
ACTIVE – experimentation/group focusREFLECTIVE – analysis/individual focus
SEQUENTIAL – from detail to the wholeGLOBAL – from whole to the detail

If we accept that learning styles vary, a more critical issue for displaced learners, facing even mild acculturation stress, is that the very conditions for learning, cognitively and socially, are adversely affected. While there are cases where students might pursue a second language by choice, either for education or travel, many are learning English under some duress, as a matter of survival. How then are learning conditions affected by the disorientation that accompanies migration, or by the trauma that accompanies involuntary refugee-ism? More fundamentally, how is learning affected by the pressure of high-stakes assessments?

Accordingly, it has become essential to competently embrace mental health issues while teaching/learning English – taking care not to impose Western diagnoses over alternative approaches to indigenous psychology. The research in these fields is extensive and helpful, and needs to part of essential TESOL teacher training. It is possible to show that teaching can be for mental health as an overall strategy, at both the curricular and the pedagogical levels. To do so, it is necessary to shift the focus from mental illness to mental health.

In this regard, the provision of counsel and learning support to leaners has become essential in most high school and tertiary institutions, and initiatives that promote access to this learning support are a priority.


Archer, M. (2000). Being human: the problem of agency. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.
Soloman, B. A., & Felder, R. M. (2005). Index of learning styles questionnaire. NC State University. Available online at: http://www. engr. ncsu. edu/learningstyles/ilsweb. html (last visited on 14.05. 2010), 70.