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Relationships are key in the teachers’ job. Teachers interact with students daily and they also have to manage a wide range of relationships with school officials and students’ families.
Language teachers also have the delicate task of introducing students to an understanding not only of grammatical rules but also of an entire culture, with its traditions, gestures and norms.
This means that the language teacher must possess a set of social skills to adapt with students and other members of the school community. In other words, the language teacher’s tool kit must be enriched with appropriate soft skills.
In this article we will look at some examples of soft skills, assessing their relevance within language teaching. We will also look at how teachers can make soft skills part of their teaching to help their students strengthen their social and intercultural competencies.
The link between soft skills and language teaching
Those involved in training and development within schools'/universities human resources departments will be more than familiar with the concept of soft skills. In fact, companies, and especially international corporations with multicultural staff, are taking an increasing interest in this complex set of emotional and interpersonal skills.
Soft skills represent a fundamental skill set in the world of education. In recent years, there has been growing attention on the part of educational institutions and universities towards soft skills, considered as an asset not only for teachers but also for students.
On closer inspection, in fact, a good teacher cannot base his or her work solely on academic know-how, but must be able to integrate this preparation with adequately developed social skills.
In the case of language teaching, soft skills are useful not only to strengthen the relationship with students and to better manage conflict situations but also to increase the effectiveness of language teaching methods.
In short, integrating soft skills into your teaching style can be a win-win solution that brings benefits to both teachers and students.
Let’s see in detail what the benefits are for the different parties.
Benefits for teachers
Foreign language teachers face the difficult task of introducing students to entirely new rules, concepts, and ways of thinking.
Language education can be easily damaged by communication difficulties, lack of cultural awareness, and demotivation.
Therefore, some key soft skills will prove particularly useful to the teacher in guiding students in their language learning journey and, more generally, in their emotional and cognitive growth.
In this context, we refer to communication in all its forms, i.e. verbal, paraverbal and non-verbal.
Excellent linguistic competence is of course one of the most important skills for a language teacher. For language teachers, however, paraverbal communication (tone and rhythm of voice) and nonverbal communication (facial expressions, posture) are also necessary to convey information from an emotional point of view.
For example, knowing how to effectively use paraverbal communication is very useful for empathically connecting with a student, understanding his or her state of mind, and adjusting one’s actions to establish an effective dialogue.
Similarly, as it has been pointed out, nonverbal communication plays an important role in defining the balance within the classroom and, if used correctly, can be effective in keeping students motivated.
Being able to gain the attention of the class and its respect is necessary for successful educational activities.
This is especially important for language teachers who work abroad and who, because they are working with students from a new cultural background, may find it more difficult to provide stable leadership in the classroom.
3. Cultural awareness:
We put it in third place in this list, but this is not a hierarchy of value. Cultural frameworks significantly influence the relationship within the classroom, so it is necessary for the teacher to have adequate preparation to manage cultural diversity.
As noted by teacher Alexandra Mercer, to be culturally aware is to have “a basic understanding” of the elements that make up a culture other than one’s own – language, traditions, laws, etc. – and to be able to understand them. With this awareness comes the possibility of establishing an inclusive dialogue with all learners and valuing their identity.
This climate of openness and understanding is necessary to work effectively with students, as well as to implement intercultural language education programs that will enable students to get the most out of their foreign language learning.
4. Social and emotional learning:
This is a skill that helps to reinforce the climate of openness mentioned above and, as a result, “improves student attitudes toward school, and reduces depression and stress among students“.
Emotional state affects daily life, and school activities are no exception. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly common to discuss social-emotional learning (SEL), which is structured into 5 key competencies, namely:
- social awareness
- relationship skills
- responsible decision-making
Benefits for students
As mentioned, a curriculum that effectively integrates soft skills benefits everyone, including students.
Globalization increased social diversity, and the rise of a knowledge-based economy has led education experts to consider training that combines hard and soft skills.
Responsibility, decision-making, and problem-solving are all important qualities for a student’s human growth, and there are a number of subjects that can integrate their development into the curriculum.
The study of a foreign language, however, is characterized by a type of activity that deeply trains particular soft skills, including teamwork, critical thinking, and awareness of oneself and the world around us.
Consider, for example, the practice of speaking skills within the classroom. As noted in a British Council analysis:
"During speaking activities, students are often encouraged to react to the person speaking and ask questions to keep the conversation moving, both of which are useful active listening techniques."
Also, many language learning activities involve students working in pairs or groups and this provides the opportunity to collaborate effectively with others, practice turn-taking or negotiation.
Practicing speaking in a foreign language does not only allow you to practice grammar but also to test your listening skills and group work.
Through communicative language teaching approach, therefore, the students not only learn to use the past participle or the Pateritum, but they learn valuable real-life communication skills. Above all, we learn to interact with others within a collaborative scheme aimed at achieving a goal.
Finally, consider the adoption of an innovative language teaching methodology such as Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) through which students learn a subject (History, Law, etc.) in a language other than their own. Within such a framework, students learn to formulate analyses on complex phenomena, such as a historical event or a system of philosophical thought.
In this way, the ability to interpret complex information through a foreign language becomes a way to develop critical thinking, formulate opinions and develop strategies to motivate them.
The study of a foreign language no longer becomes just an end, but rather a means through which to impart a comprehensive education that also prepares the student for life after school.
This would not be possible with a curriculum in which soft skills have no place.
A short guide for language teachers
If you are completely unfamiliar with the soft skill topic, here is a list of resources that will help you better understand what we are talking about and, more importantly, how to help your students develop this crucial set of skills.
Soft skills and education
How to integrate soft skills in language classroom