The Exposure Conundrum

I honestly believe that learning a language is a lot closer to learning a musical instrument than it is to preparing for a school exam. I also clearly remember the day that I shared with my guitar instructor that I’d finally bought a case for my guitar – surprisingly, he wasn’t thrilled and simply asked me why I’d chosen to waste the money on something that would actually hamper my development. The rationale was simple: if the guitar was in its case, I’d have to open the case anytime I felt like playing it. And I would consequently miss out on the casual moments in which I’d be just thinking about nothing and would automatically reach out for the guitar, grab it, and gently play it aimlessly. I didn’t think he was right back then – little did I know. By keeping the guitar in the case and actually being aware of what I’d been told, I realised that I played the guitar a lot less when it was in the case. I could even have the time to listen to a song I’d like to learn, but I wouldn’t take the trouble to unzip the case, get the guitar and then put it back in the case. Call me lazy – but that will to play at each and every moment just wasn’t part of me any longer. I guess I wasn’t that motivated back then. As I started playing less and less, it was getting harder for me to play it when I actually wanted to. I was getting rusty.

How do you fix it?

How do you fix it?

This happens with language as well. If you stop using it, you’ll lose it. Now, obviously, we are talking about receptive and productive skills when it comes to language – just like music, or sports, for that matter. I believe I’d be on the safe side if I assumed that exposure allows for greater chance of development. The more I listen to a song, the easier it should be for me to play it. The more I watch a footballer or a basketball player in action, the easier it should be for me to try to imitate their moves. The more I hear and read a language, the easier it should be for me to speak and write it. And, well, this is my point with this piece. This is the exposure conundrum I feel that many EFL students and teachers are facing right now.

You see, when I was learning English, there was no Internet available, cable TV cost an arm and a leg, and travelling abroad to an English speaking country was a luxury. There were songs, but we would either get them on the radio, record them on cassettes, or buy one album. It’s a safe bet to state that never before have EFL learners been exposed to so much of the target language as they are these days – from Internet radios to computer games; from cable TV to cheaper trips overseas. And yet, I feel that learners – and teachers themselves – are settling for less.

The overexposure to language creates a chasm between the speed of development for receptive and productive skills, which is not dealt with appropriately in a classroom where the person who should be correcting the learners is not worried about the understanding of the message, but this person, the teacher, is trying hard to make sense of any utterance that leaves the speaker’s mouth. Teachers can be the worst assessors of language production when they try so hard to make sense of what students say and choose – with their learners’ best interest at heart – not to correct mistakes, claiming that it was a fluency stage of the lesson. This lack of correction and apparent communication makes the learner believe that his or her production, no matter how broken or how little is said, is enough. Let’s face it, not all learners are that motivated and self-aware of their mistakes to go beyond what their teachers tell them in class. Hence, they feel happy that they’ve managed to convey their message. However, sometimes teachers end up by limiting their learners possibilities by taking the ‘if there’s basic understanding, that’s what matters’ approach.

Later on, we wind up creating a generation of learners who become “advanced” learners at a B1+ CEFR level. And these learners don’t understand why it’s so hard for them to take a CAE exam. And it’s hard for anyone to understand why is it that a learner who manages to watch TV in English and read complex articles is unable to write a formal email or talk to someone on the phone to solve a problem.

What’s happened is quite simple – on account of exposure, learners were under the false impression that they’ll be able to speak and write at the same level that they can receive the message. As teachers are not pushing them to vary their grammar and vocabulary so that their production matches their receptive skills, they themselves don’t feel it’s necessary. And here’s the catch.

When there was very little exposure to the target language, EFL learners found it a lot harder to understand what they were being exposed to when they had the chance and this, in return, made them feel like it was necessary to study harder. Nowadays, when it’s easier and easier for students to be in contact with the target language, their ears fine tune much faster, and this leads to a lack of need to study harder. This is the exposure conundrum – why is it that despite increased exposure to the target language, EFL students are not able to develop faster and more accurate?

I started the text talking about music, and I’d like to end it talking about sports – another area in which practice is key if you want to succeed. In the world of sport, there’s always an opponent who pushes you to try to perform better each time. The competition of the game makes the participants want to improve. It triggers a need for improvement. Perhaps we could take advantage of this principle. What if we stopped trying so hard to understand every little piece of broken language that our students produce in order to help them feel the need to improve? Honestly, we all know how to do it, but I feel that there’s been such a strong current in favour of always being nice to learners in what, to my view, is a misinterpretation of what affective means, that many teachers now have gotten lost in the fine line between challenging and helping learners. If this were not the case, why is it that things like Demand High are making a comeback – or have at least struck a chord with so many teachers?


Henrick Oprea

Henrick Oprea has been working in ELT since 1997. He's got a post-graduation degree from the University of Birmingham. He is the current president of BRAZ-TESOL. He currently works as a freelancer teacher trainer and educator. He believes that teachers are the ones who make the difference in any classroom, and this is why he is keen on sharing. He blogs about education and ELT at, and you can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. He's also a dad!

1 Comment
  • Elizabeth Mattei
    Posted at 07:54h, 22 agosto Responder

    sometimes I get a little lost between correcting too much or not correcting at all. Of course I’m not just at these extremes – I always try to follow the correct strategies I learned and go on updating myself (recently witnessed Thornbury talking about it , an always interesting debate) . I fully agree with what you say about the exposure conundrum and compare this exposure with modern technology tools swarming our classrooms and the need of dosing their use in order to have a better use of them.

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