English is my second language. I started learning when I was in secondary, and the passion that I developed encouraged me to pursue a BA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and in teaching Spanish (my mother tongue) as a foreign language. In the process I learned French and Italian, and at present I continue to learn Chinese. Learning and teaching language, thus, has become a life style and a way of amplifying my convictions.
Language is more than a collection of vocabulary items, and a system of time tenses, and types of sentences. Language is the tool that allows us to access information and knowledge, and that enables us to contribute to all fields of knowledge. Individuals who attempt to learn a language will eventually face the need of increasing the sophistication of the language they are learning, and to move beyond colloquial conversations.
People can be very fluent in their command of the language for social and communicative purposes, but comprehending and utilizing the language for specific purposes is a completely different universe. This particular asseveration has caused a lot of international schools to support subject teachers to become language teachers, specifically English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers.
I have respectfully witnessed how several experts (many of whom are monolingual) provide professional development through which teachers are equipped with a series of strategies to support their students who are not native speakers of English. Nonetheless, these strategies are strategies that future EFL teachers are taught in order to teach learners to acquire the language, and to develop their social language competencies.
As I hear about these experiences, I cannot help but wonder:
- Will students feel that they are extending their knowledge on the subject by solely doing vocabulary exercises? How can their language experience be maximized?
- Will teachers develop exemplary language classes and consider the inquiries and content in their subjects as a second priority? How can we find the balance?
- Will teachers and students shorten the already limited learning time they possess in order to work on language items in isolation?
Clearly not all subject teachers are language (let alone foreign language) teachers; but evidently not all foreign language teachers are subject teachers or possess the knowledge to explain how language is used in all subjects. Added to this, many of the experts that provide support have no idea about how the mother tongue of the learners whose teachers they are training. In brief, the mistake I have observed is that the experts that schools bring with a lot of hope and positivity share strategies that have worked in their context (mostly USA, UK, and Canada), where students are surrounded by the language, and not one in which speaking English at school is the only bubble in which this experience takes place.
I have spent the last 2 years learning about the context of the students that attend the school in which I work. I have spent a considerable amount of time learning about the engagements they can share with their parents in order for home to be an extension to the language learning experience. Likewise, I have been looking into how their mother tongues work. I have been keeping track of the mistakes they make and looked at how those ideas are expressed in their language in order to find ways to help teachers develop metacognitive, linguistic skills in their students, taking into consideration how ideas are constructed in the students’ mother languages. This personal inquiry has helped me to conclude that whatever support will be given to the teachers of specific group of students must take those aspects into consideration, otherwise it will be biased for it was clearly designed for learners in a different context.
Moreover, I have had the opportunity to put into practice the tools I have developed through my investigation in several schools with a similar context as mine: a combination of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and other Asian nationals. I have confirmed that knowing about how the students’ languages operate has helped me to support teachers design language tools that make sense to students.
Needless to say, my experience as a language learner, not only English but also Chinese- which helps me understand some Japanese, has been key in the design of these tools and approaches to teaching. Likewise, the error analysis protocols that I have created in collaboration with teachers of those languages has helped me to figure out shortcuts whereby students will be able to produce big ideas, and to speak with a sense of ownership.
Below are a few screenshots of the tools I have developed in order to enrich the language experience in a specific-subject-environment.
To bring this post to a closure, I would like to mention a few of the challenges that I have kept in mind in this journey (the list keeps growing)
- How to help students formulate statements and questions that can lead to meaningful inquiry.
- How to translate these activities into learning experiences that extend students’ conceptual understanding.
- How to guide students to understand the linguistic competencies demands for each lesson. (What do we want them to communicate and how)
- How to develop students’ competence in communicating new understandings.
Interested parties in learning about the PD I have developed as a result of this research, do not hesitate to contact me.