An Appreciation of Language Acquisition in PYP

How many different dishes can you make with tomatoes, basil, cheese, onion, celery and grapefruit? This is my metaphor for the many things one can do in a foreign language when we understand what lies inside attitudes, concepts and transdisciplinary themes.

The days when grammar was the only thing language teachers thought about is long over. These are the days when language teachers explore the power of meaning implicit in the structure of language and how it empowers us to express and design new ideas and information.


Hockett’s language design features

Undeniably, language is one of the tools that connect all areas of knowledge. It is the one tool that we use to record, and communicate learning, and the vessel we use to navigate the waves of learning. Equally powerful, and adding nuance to the competencies mentioned above, is the empowerment one obtains from learning a foreign language. Learning a foreign language confronts us, learners, with the essence of difference, similarities, patterns, discovery, creativity and access to ideas that we may not be able to express in our mother tongue. Nonetheless, possibly because those that have not lived this experience ignore the wonders of its gifts, these skills are seldom discussed as the main dish in collaborative meetings.
This has always surprised me in international education. What is a more evident sign of internationalism understanding of cultures than being able to live and being an active part of several communities, through their languages?

A question on twitter about the role of foreign languages in the IB PYP exhibition made me look into my very ancient files and look at meeting minutes and photos of moments where I was lucky to discuss the gifts of foreign language skills. Thus, this text is both a reflection and an act to rescue memories that was not documented properly.

The PYP attitudes

Regardless of whether we call them attitudes or dispositions, the term is not as important as exploring the meaning and impact they have in the language teaching and learning process and in the process of building new understandings. In PYP schools, students should demonstrate these virtues yet, it is interesting how these terms are seldom discussed as key elements . In foreign language environments, these attitudes or dispositions occur in interesting manners: as we become acquainted with different ways of looking at things; as we learn a different way to express ideas and look at the world; as we realize how the acquisition of new structures, different degrees of truth, and a different value system is affecting us; and most importantly, as we, learners, become aware of the niche that we create when there is a channel of communication with our peers, which sounds, feels, tastes and moves differently in comparison to our mother tongue.

So how do the PYP attitudes reflect language acquisition processes? Let’s be mindful that they are what we want our learners to feel, value and demonstrate.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 9.20.58 AM* Languages have different grammar tenses and structures; thus, functions have been used to exemplify. Teachers should look at the developmental level for each function and determine for which phase they are more appropriate.
** While there are, clearly, topics for daily conversation and survival, simple language can be used to speak about things that matter, and to learn from different perspectives; we solely need to curate the context we choose so that learners can explore engaging, relevant, challenging and significant experiences.

Now, allow me to speak about the field where attitudes, key concepts and related concepts play: the transdisciplinary themes.

Since the transdisciplinary themes are part of the common ground that promotes transfer and provide the opportunity to incorporate both local and global issues in the curriculum, I thought it’d be interesting to explore the meaning of the subject within each theme. Here are some reflections.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 9.21.28 AMAfter sharing my appreciation of how foreign language systems are present in the PYP attitudes, and the foreign language explorations that can be found in the transdisciplinary themes, all we need to do is pick the combo that best fits in the design of the collective inquiry.

How many recipes can you think of?

A memory.

Back in 2011, at Ecole Mondiale World School in Mumbai, India, for the PYP Exhibition, I was lucky to be part of a theme with who wanted Language Acquisition (and other specialist subjects for that matter) to add nuance to the exhibition by injecting their essence in the whole experience. In preparation for the exhibition, each member of the team was asked to prepare a presentation on how the PYP attitudes and Transdiciplinary themes were seen through the lenses of their subjects.

Not only were we to ‘plan a component’ to show, but to include something whose construction is a reflection of how understanding of the central idea is being experienced, and something that, because of the nature of the subject and the fact that it originated in ‘the foreign language universe’, would create that layer of thought that would serve as a provocation or opportunity for reflection for the audience. So what did we, in language acquisition, do? Above you have read a glimpse of our presentation and below are four memorable points of our experience.

  1. In collaboration with my French language students, we identified a series of activities in which we could find ideas or elements to address the central idea we were working on.
  2. We thought of a way in which we could tweak them and make them relevant to the big idea of the PYP Ex.
  3. We decided to produce capitalize on the value of our choices and turn them into an except of a TV show which was prerecorded, and which gave students the opportunity to use it as a stimulus to further interact with during the presentation stage.
  4. Part of the exhibition that the audience witnessed, hence, was student dialogue that reflected how everything they had done in their French class paved the way towards an understanding they were now consolidating in their culminating project. And the best part is that the product chosen was in the target language (French), but it was through their interaction how they engaged the audience in visualizing how their thinking had evolved.

I have always been against translating foreign language productions to the audience, because then translation becomes the focus, and not the construction of understandings, which is the real goal. Yet, as students discussed their ideas and exchanged their perspectives about what they were watching, they offered the audience two channels of appreciation whereby they became aware of how studying a foreign language truly means looking at the world in a different way.

A big thank you to Kirsten Loza, for her  pair of eyes, brilliant reflections and insights.


About Rafael Angel

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instructor Independent Trainer. Concept-Based Foreign Language Curriculum and Instruction specialist. Teaching and Learning Director; 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 ATL, Curriculum, IB PYP, Inquiry, Teaching and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Appreciation of Language Acquisition in PYP

  1. Silvia Tilton says:

    Very interesting and useful article. My only concern is that by pushing reflection, deep analysis, critical thinking without developing appropriate language skills (yes, I’m talking about grammar and vocabulary) we are setting our students for frustrating and perhaps painful sessions. My students are full of ideas, but because they do not have words and structures, they cannon communicate them. I still find fundamental value in language, in the language class.

    • Rafael Angel says:

      Hello Silvia,
      There would be no language without grammar, without vocabulary and structures- I am a big grammar fan, actually. What I have been doing for a few years now, however, is elevating the purpose of grammar and choose vocabulary and structures that allow students to express big ideas. There are so many valuable, meaningful things that can be incorporated in one’s daily interactions from the beginning, instead of waiting till the time when students ‘have the level’. By helping students that they can say big ideas with a few words, not only do they become excited, but they dare to experiment. I have exemplars of tasks in Spanish and French, which have been breakthroughs in my teaching experience if you’re interested.

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