How do young foreign language learners inquire?

(This post was originally posted on Inquire Within)

The foreign language-learning environment will always be a formidable space for provocations and explorations. Acquiring a language is not solely limited to learning a new set of vocabulary and grammatical structures, but a great opportunity to incorporate a new value system and a new conception of what is true or false into our lives.

A new language, as its finding a way to belong in a learner’s mind, will collide and have frictions with ideas and ways of thinking that already exist. It will also shake hands with similarities and commonalities that will make it feel like it’s at home; and it will also contribute to the architecture of ideas- just because it’s a good friend. In the words of a fourth grader: ‘ [Spanish] is making my brain grow more tentacles’.

Some teachers might experience frustration when they do not get the questions or responses they expected from students, but whose questions are these, the teacher’s or students’? Students will most definitely have a response for all stimuli they are presented with, except that we will need to look close and learn to ‘read’ their kind of reactions. While teenagers could take the inquiry to a different level by asking profound and thoughtful questions, by contributing sharp points to the discussion or by challenging the ideas being debated, young learners will do their job as well, but in their own way, in their own language, in a manner that corresponds to their biological age. We might hear sounds like ‘mmmm’; tiny (yet gigantic) expressions like ‘aaaah’; we might witness how a smile is drawn on their face; we might notice how they start scratching their head; or a set of hands might invade the air asking for a chance to give sound to a few thoughts.

Thus, I wonder what are some essential features of inquiry detectives? What are the signals that will activate our inquiry-opportunity radar? How to recognize those instants that will trigger attention to a good inquiry? Undoubtedly, being an active listener and observer and embracing such attitude ‘a flor de piel’ (passionately – literally on the flower of your skin) is important, but a willingness to take that journey with students and to welcome anyone who wants to be a part of it is equally important. It might be difficult to see, at first, but students’ wonderings and wanderings might just be able to take us to the destination we wanted to arrive at through different paths.

A pleasant dialogue with 4th graders this week made my day. We were discussing gender in Spanish, and how the ‘a’ at the end of most words is the sign that a vocabulary item is feminine. Right after a few examples were presented, along came the sounds, and the sights, and the hands in the air: “So, do Spanish speaking people feel confused when they see male names like Abdullah or Aditya, which are male but look female?” “So what do people understand when we cannot ‘boy things’ (meaning vocabulary items of masculine gender) with girl words (meaning vocabulary items of feminine gender)?” And this is where I sat and let them discuss. My task while I served as a moderator of the inquiry was to take notes, for some of them could be turned into meaningful and powerful examples that will help them see beyond vocabulary and embrace the universe that inhabits in every word.

This experience felt like a déjà vu for I had already experienced how PYP / primary students are also able to philosophize. Here is an excerpt of that experience on September 21, 2006

It is quite interesting to see how they understand the process of ‘making meaning’, and how quickly they associate sounds to representations in order to understand the difference between 西 and 四 (west and 4) in terms of meaning, sounds and stroke order. As the teacher mentioned that by combining characters we got new meanings as, for example we can use XI (西) to write Mexico. The A ha! moment came when a student asked: “when we want to write ‘Mexico‘  [墨西哥] in Mandarin, does it matter which character we write first?” and another student replied: “Well, when you write Mexico in English you do not start from right to left with O, C, I, X, E, M, do you? So the order does matter.” While for us, adults, this can be a very obvious conclusions, what would we think if I said that the student making this point was in grade 3?

While this observation and realization could have only stayed within my department, I felt it was important to share with my colleagues, for the WOW! Moments in a learning experience can certainly help teachers of other subjects to see how ready students are, how they see things, and how they are able to relate new understanding to new ones. Thus, as I said at the beginning, we are truly lucky at our school, for this kind of moments when we see how one child’s idea have an impact on the whole class (teacher included) is quite unique, and they must definitely be taken into account when designing learning experiences for which we might think students are not ready when they actually are!

We nurture stage artists with applause; and teachers and learners at heart are nurtured with moments like this.

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About Rafael Angel

Curriculum Coordinator and Language Teacher; lives for traveling, reading, learning and tasting new flavours; culture and art lover; passionate about cinema and music. IB MYP, DP Workshop Leader. Mexican YouTuber and Soundclouder.
This entry was posted in IB PYP, Inquiry, Reflection and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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