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Bathroom English: Utilizing Private Mundanity to Maximize Second Language Acquisition

Abstract: Utilizing “remnant” time in one’s private routines to practice a second language is highly effective in that it provides a safe setting where one can prepare oneself for eventual public interactions, which can be much more face-threatening. The paper suggests several strategies to maximize second language acquisition in private mundanity, such as reading aloud in the bathroom and self-interviewing while commuting.

If you are like me, you might search for labels on your shampoo bottle or the dosage instructions on your Tylenol bottle to read, while in the bathroom. Even if you are not a compulsive reader, you might sometimes consider some productive things that you could do during your obligatory ritual. You have time. You have privacy. What can you do to maximize your productivity?

Some people read newspapers and magazines; some sing their favorite songs or simply the songs that somehow become stuck in their heads; yet others talk on the phone. These are all excellent ways to increase one’s productivity. To this list, I would like to add learning a second language. Since my field is Teaching English as a Second Language, I will call it “Bathroom English.” In a nutshell, “Bathroom English” is a marriage between second language acquisition and mundanity. Learners of English can improve their language skills tremendously by taking advantage of their routines. This paper will explore the importance of everydayness in language acquisition and suggest several strategies to maximize its effectiveness.

Everyday life is not a new concept in second language acquisition. In fact, during the heydays of Audiolingualism[1], everyday life was often represented in dialogs set in a white middle class family living room overlooking a manicured lawn. This homogenized and sanitized approach to Teaching English as a Second Language was wryly criticized by Ionesco in The Bald Soprano (1958).

Mrs. Smith: There, it’s nine o’clock. We’ve drunk the soup, and eaten the fish and chips, and the English salad. The children have drunk English water. We’ve eaten well this evening. That’s because we live in the suburbs of London and because our name is Smith. (p. 9)

One problem with this kind of everyday life is that it represents someone else’s mundanity. When I was studying English in middle school and high school, I was exposed to many texts not too different from Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd. What made it worse was the fact that I, a 12 year-old Korean girl, had to repeat and memorize “I am Tom. I am a boy.” I felt utterly unconnected to American or sometimes British middle class families with their often irritating cheerfulness, mothers in high heels, and their backyard barbecues. In retrospect, after having lived in the U.S.A. for the last 13 years, I know that these texts did not represent the America middle class culture accurately. Their spic and span houses and conflict-free lives seemed unrealistic, conspicuously lacking “messiness” that is often found in real life. Perhaps they represented everydayness from nowhere. In spite of its earnest intentions, this approach failed to ignite intrinsic motivation in me as well as in many other language learners.

Communicative Language Teaching[2] has successfully shifted second language teaching from mechanical drills to more authentic language use with meaningful contexts. A more recent and more realistic approach to incorporate mundanity into ESL (English as a Second Language) can be seen in Task-based Language Teaching, one of many variations of Communicative Language Teaching. According to Long (1985), tasks are 101 and things that people do everyday. In order to prepare language learners for these “target tasks”, teachers engage their students in pedagogical tasks, which are problem solving activities approximating target tasks. For instance, in order to prepare learners to be able to perform interactions in a restaurant, teachers give them classroom tasks involving understanding menus, ordering food, and paying for food in role-play settings. Most target tasks naturally involve linguistic interactions in everyday life; that is, there are always other parties involved besides the learners because these tasks belong to the domain of public mundanity.

Pedagogical tasks, such as role-plays, debates, and information gap activities are excellent tools to prepare second language learners for public everyday interactions in a relatively safe environment. Safety is an important issue because it is daunting to be thrown into linguistic interactions with native speakers of English or with speakers whose language the learners do not share. Not only do many learners have only a shaky control over the language, but they also have difficulty dealing with non-verbal cues and cultural contexts. Their experiences are analogous to the autistic protagonist in the movie Rain Man stopping in the middle of a crosswalk because the sign had changed to “Do not walk.” (Rain Man, 1988). Many non-native speakers of English live in a literal world while the world surrounding them is not always literal. Interactions in the target culture can easily result in miscommunications, and can potentially be face-threatening.

I vividly remember the time when I first received my graduate assistantship and had to report to the payroll office; on my way to the office, I practiced what I was going to say, flipping back and forth between “employer” and “employee”. I knew the rule that “-er” is a suffix for the do-er of an action, and “-ee” is a suffix for the beneficiary. However, when I walked into the office, I became extremely nervous and committed a terrible performance error: “I am a new employer.” The clerk at the desk turned to her co-workers and repeated my sentence. Of course, uproarious laughter followed. Although I knew I had made a mistake the moment the word came out of mouth, I did not have either the courage to correct myself or the sense of humor to make a witty comeback. Contrary to what this experience might lead one to believe, the input and the feedback that non-native speakers receive from native speakers is not always negative. When given in an encouraging manner, the native speaker input and feedback can be highly beneficial in the learners’ language development. While interactions with native speakers are crucial factors in second language acquisition, they are not always readily available. If learners do not live in the target culture, their chances of encountering target input and feedback are not great.

How, then, can second language learners overcome challenges of public mundanity or, sometimes, a lack of it? My answer to the question is private mundanity, one aspect in the learners’ routines that has been under-examined: 101 things that the learner does in private without involving other parties. The main reason that private mundanity needs to be thoroughly examined in second language acquisition is that it can function as a bridge between classroom instructions and public tasks. It is definitely less face-threatening and less risky than public mundanity, which involves interactions with other people, mostly native speakers. Unlike public situations, private routines enable learners to adjust the pace of language production and the degree of difficulty of the language use because they are the only ones involved in the private domain. In public interactions, learners are often thrown into conversations or exposed to input that are beyond their grasp. This is in part due to their insufficient linguistic competence, but also due to the interlocutors’ (often native speakers of English) failure to adjust their speech according to learner’s proficiency level. In addition, utilizing private mundanity in second language acquisition increases the time learners use English beyond mere several hours of classroom instruction per week. One of the main reasons that learning a second language poses an insurmountable challenge to many people is that many of them view the classroom experience as if it is an exotic island vacation from which they return home when they leave the classroom. Since language is an all-encompassing element in our lives, unless second language learners find a way to incorporate this foreign medium into their everyday life, the second language will always remain a foreign artifact, failing to become an everyday medium they use for functional as well as expressive purposes.

What are 101 things that one performs everyday in private? Brushing one’s teeth, using the bathroom, taking a shower, eating, watching TV, reading the newspaper, taking the bus or subway, and driving to and from work are just of few of those activities. Since reading silently in private is something that is done a great deal already, I would like to emphasize the oral aspect of language use. That leaves us using the bathroom, taking a shower, watching TV, driving to and from work, etc. These tasks are usually performed in private and often take a great deal of our time. It is about 25% of my waking hours, and I do not even commute. Since these tasks are performed rather automatically through extensive practice, taking up very little of people’s consciousness, people tend to occupy the remainder of their brain space with secondary tasks, such as listening to the radio, eating snacks, and even applying make-up. Instead of these secondary tasks, a motivated language learner can devote the extra energy and time in developing his or her language skills.

Reading magazines aloud in the bathroom, one of the private tasks that I highly recommend, is a powerful strategy. The magazines do not have to be The New Yorker and Time if one’s interest does not lie in the areas covered by these prestigious magazines, or if one’s linguistic ability is far below the level of English used in them. Depending on the learner’s interest and level, any magazine written in English will do be it Golf Digest, Entertainment Weekly, or American Angler. It is also important that the English in these magazines is slightly above the learner’s current level of competence. Too many unfamiliar words pose an extra challenge in that learners will have to figure out their pronunciation in addition to making those sounds even if they do not pay attention to the meaning. Of course, one can use these magazines to read for pleasure and to receive new information. The area that I would like to emphasize is reading out loud. Reading materials aloud without paying too much attention to comprehension helps the learner practice rhythm, intonation, as well as individual sounds. The acoustics of a small space makes it easy to perceive one’s own errors and to self-correct them. Also, the mirror in the bathroom can be used to achieve precision of one’s articulation. It is a perfect place for “covert rehearsal.” (Dickerson, 1984)

Interviewing oneself in the bathroom can be highly effective and entertaining at the same time. One can pretend to be an authority on areas of one’s interest or one’s own culture. How about being interviewed by Larry King about anti-government demonstrations among Korean college students? How about the origin of Salsa? Learners can gradually expand their repertoire to include topics that they are not too familiar with. As is true even in one’s first language use, talking about issues and ideas that one is not interested in or too familiar with can be taxing on multiple levels. One often finds that one lacks adequate vocabulary and jargon for unfamiliar fields. Whether one encounters a situation in real life in which one can actually give those rehearsed “impromptu” speeches or not is of little importance. If one becomes lucky enough to have an opportunity to express one’s opinions on those issues, one will be definitely prepared. If not, one will have enough confidence about one’s verbal skills in general to tackle new issues and topics because one has practiced discussing unfamiliar topics.

The self-interview technique can work equally well while driving to and from work or school. A vehicle provides a small environment with perfect privacy unless one carpools with other people. If one prefers to listen to tapes, interactive language tapes are recommended. For example, the tapes can ask questions, and one is given several minutes to respond. If not, shadowing–repeating what people say on tape or on the radio immediately following the speakers–can help learners to practice pronunciation, rhythm, and intonation, which are major components that heavily affect intelligibility.

Singing in the shower, commonly practiced by many people, is another strategy that learners can use to improve their English. However, singing is not the mode of practice that I recommend most highly because it is often rather limited in its scope and creativity. People memorize given lyrics rather than create their own. Also, song lyrics are not the best samples of common everyday language, with its heavy use of metaphors and variant structures.

One thing I have noticed in the USA is that few people admit to watching TV. I found it rather amusing that many people who “do not watch TV” seem to remember some obscure commercials when they are brought up in conversations. When I first came to the USA, I was literally glued to my TV set for hours after coming home from school. I did not have a high level of cultural as well as linguistic sophistication regarding this culture to discern junk TV from classic TV; in fact, I watched everything from American Gladiators to Bay Watch. As embarrassing as they make cultural elitists feel, one cannot deny the fact that the lower end of the cultural spectrum rightfully represents some aspects of American culture. I find that soap operas the most ideal for beginning to intermediate learners. Oller’s Episode Hypothesis (1983) states that connected episodes facilitate reproduction, understanding, and recall of both aural and written texts. I believe that they enhance learning because one can sustain high level of interest when one is held in suspense for what is to come next. Besides, common themes in soap operas tend to be universal in nature. Jealousy, love, passion, pregnancy, and revenge seem to predominate in soap operas all around the world. People can easily relate to those emotions. Secondly, they are timeless; besides the fact that soap opera actors do not seem to age, these shows seem to have very little reference to current events. So one does not have to be familiar with recent social, political issues to understand them. Thirdly, the actors tend to use simple language, speak slowly, and with often-exaggerated gestures, providing extra non-verbal clues to help listening comprehension. A little more challenging than soap operas are situational comedies. The comprehension of these materials requires slightly higher level of cultural knowledge. For example, the 80’s show assumes that the viewer has a fairly good grasp of the time period that is satirized in the show, as there are many cultural references and visual puns. (Of course, I have never watched the show. Really.) News broadcast can be fairly challenging in that its vocabulary is of a higher caliber with many unfamiliar proper nouns referring to specific people, places, and organizations. In addition, due to time restrictions, news broadcasters tend to speak extremely fast. The most challenging of all the show types are stand-up comedies due to its extremely high culture specific content and subtle cross-cultural variations of what strikes people as funny. One should select TV programs carefully based on one’s interest and linguistic level. In addition to listening for comprehension, one can also shadow actors and anchors to practice rhythm. One can even mute the interviewee’s portion and pretend to be interviewed by big shots like Diane Sawyer.

I am not interested in creating second language schizophrenics who talk to themselves incessantly. I am simply saying that second language learners need to utilize private everydayness to fill in the gap between language instructions and fully functional social interactions in their target culture. One cannot, as studies have proven, expect the transition from classroom instructions to successful public interactions to be easy and smooth. Brown (1994) calls for “strategic investment” in second language learning, maintaining that since language is one of the most complex set of skills; learners need to invest their time and effort “in the form of developing multiple layers of strategies.” One needs time to absorb what is learned and to make one’s new language not something that one borrows once in a while like a roommate’s blazer, but something that one uses as an extra medium of communication every day the way all languages are intended to be used.

One’s language is an integral part of personal identity. When one views a second language in the context of someone else’s mundanity, one has difficulty overcoming the foreignness of this new medium, much less adopting it as an extra means of communication. Mundanity in second language acquisition needs to be presented realistically and in ways that are meaningful to the learner. It also needs to be gradually introduced, starting from private everydayness (where one is not threatened by an insensitive listener), fast-paced exchanges, and constantly changing power dynamics and situations. Once one feels comfortable using one’s second language in one’s private domain, one is ready for more public contexts. The very fact that one’s most private moments are in part conducted in one’s second a language is the very indication that the second language has become an integral part of one’s multicultural identity.

Notes

[1] A language teaching method that was extremely popular in the 50’s and 60’s. It has its roots in the “Army Method”, and it uses audiotapes, sentence patterns, and various oral drills.

[2] According to Richards and Rodgers (1986), Communicative Language Teaching is an approach designed to develop “communicative competence.” Because of this emphasis, it is known for interactive process-oriented techniques that encourage language learners to negotiate their meanings in groups using authentic materials.

Works Cited

Brown, H.D. (1994). Teaching by Principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Regents.

Dickerson, W. B. (1984). The role of formal rules in pronunciation instruction. In J. Handscombe, R. Orem and B. Taylor (Eds.), On TESOL ’83. Washington, D.C.: TESOL. 135-148.

Ionesco, E. (1958). The Bald Soprano. In Four Plays by Eugène Ionesco. (D.M. Allen, Trans.). New York: Grove Weidenfield. (Original work published 1954)

Johnson, M. (Producer), & Levinson, B. (Director). (1988). Rain Man [Film].

Long, M.H. (1985). A role for instruction in second language acquisition: Task-based language training. In K. Hyltenstam and M. Pienemann (Eds.), Modelling and Assessing Second Language Acquisition. Clevedon, Avon: Multilingual Matters.

Oller, J.W. (1983). Story writing principles and ESL teaching. TESOL Quarterly 17(1), 39-53.

Richards, J.C. & Rodgers, T. S. (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language

Teaching: A description and analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Author: Eunha Jung became an “international orphan” 13 years ago, when she left Korea to come to the United States to pursue a doctorate in Applied Linguistics. Thanks to thousands of hours spent practicing “Bathroom English” herself, she now is teaching American students how to speak, write, and even teach English, as an assistant professor at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma.

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