Thursday, July 15, 2010

Learning Language

I am a huge proponent of putting yourself in your student's shoes on a semi-regular basis so that you can reach them at their level. I have been given just such an experience (on a much less urgent level) this summer.

My lovely and talented significant other serves as a Navy medic and has recently been stationed in Italy for the next three years. Now nobody can predict the future, least of all me (I tried that once...didn't work out), but I got to thinking that three years is a long time. And hey, you never know when you might find yourself in Italy. I made a promise to myself that, while I had some extra time this summer, I would go about the long and strenuous task of learning another language (Italian this time).

Learning a language "for fun" is very different from learning it for necessity (though one could argue that it might become necessary at some point). I know this because I was thrown into a living situation in Mexico after having only studied Spanish for 2 1/2 years at that point and forced to speak in order to survive. That was indeed the sink or swim method and I had the "luxury" of having at least SOME background in the language prior to being immersed in it.

But the way in which my learning Italian challenges me to think like my kids has less to do with survival (and the totally alienating feeling of being in a place where nobody understands you) and much more to do with the way in which language is learned. For me, everything that I've been doing has been an experiment in how language is learned best and how I can take that and translate it into what I do in the classroom with my own bilingual students (in fact, this would be pertinent for any teacher who teaches English, writing, or reading as well).

What I've found will be hard to replicate. The most perfect way of learning language involves repetition, pictures, building up from smaller concepts, and (as I always suspected) using knowledge from your first language. That's right! If people still want to have the same tired English-only argument, I'm in a position now to argue even harder for even longer.

It has always been that the newcomer students I have had who came to the country with a solid education in their native language have BLOWN ME AWAY by the amount of English that they learn in a year's time (with Spanish support, yeah that's right). It is when students have no/little foundation in language at all that the battle is truly uphill. In that case, you might as well through them in head first because they're starting at a pre-school level anyway (but even that is not true, because they still have verbal Spanish and have spent their lives exposed to Spanish text).

As committed as I am to the idea of bilingual education (and I better be, it's my job) I am learning that there are better ways to include the primary language in the classroom that actually stretch a student to use what they know to infer meaning. I'm glad that, even if I never see Italy, my commitment to language will never be in vain when it comes to what I can learn and apply for my students.

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