Our students arrive in our classrooms the first day with many different perceptions about what the class will be like. They are all wondering if the class is going to be difficult or if the teacher will be “nice.” Others wonder if the class is going to be boring or if there will be loads of homework.
Here is what your students need to hear you say on the first day of class.
1. “I am so happy that you are here.”
We know that students enroll in our classes for myriad reasons: they “need their credits” for college, they want to be able to communicate when they travel, it is a graduation requirement, they want to live abroad, they want to be able to speak with their relatives, their friends are taking it, they think it will be easier than the other foreign languages that are offered, they want to be more competitive in the job market, etc.
On the first day of class with level one, I tell them how I never took Spanish in high school. They all gasp and wonder how it is that somebody trusted me to teach the language. I then tell them that I took four years of German and that it was not until my junior year of college that I became interested in Spanish and eventually added it as a major and began my formal study.
You never know just how much of an impact you will have on your students, or even if that impact will relate to the language you teach. We need to be just as thankful to have the kid who is here for her foreign language credits as we are for the one whose ambition is to teach French linguistics. Extend some grace to the ones who just see your class as one more thing they need to get through in their day before they can do what they really want to do. You never know who those kids will become.
2. “Acquiring another language is not hard, but it does take time. A lot of time.”
Are you teaching the language that you took in high school? Chances are that you are and that you took four or more years of the language. How many language teachers can say that the majority of their language learning occurred in a high school classroom as opposed to spending time in the host country, interacting with native speakers, and engaging with the culture through reading and watching authentic materials? Hopefully no one.
Our objective as language teachers should be to get our students to the intermediate level of proficiency, from which they can take off on their own when we no longer have them. We must take advantage of every opportunity that we can to model to students that successful people (regardless of their line of work) do not stop learning once their formal schooling ends.
3. “Language class is different from every one of your other classes.”
Chemistry requires explicit knowledge of electrons and how they work to understand how covalent and ionic bonds are formed. A pre-algebra student needs to either memorize or know how to think consciously about the slope-intercept formula, y = mx + b to understand and use linear equations. A language student does not need to know about morphemes (a unit of language that cannot be further divided) or be able to tell you the rules of ser vs. estar to understand and communicate in the language.
Most students who hear you say that memorization and conscious study will not be a part of the class may be left wondering what they have to do instead to be successful in the class. This is where you emphasize that listening and reading with the intent to understand and sustained focus will be the rigor that these students (and their parents) are seeking.
4. “Errors are encouraged and will not be punished.”
This is where newcomers to CI instruction tend to feel the most uncomfortable. You have to be be able to tolerate the grammatical errors that are an inevitable part of language acquisition. You have to truly believe in your heart that communication can still occur with improperly conjugated verbs and incorrect gender and number agreement. Take a look at the ACTFL proficiency guidelines. Nowhere in the territory where the majority of our students operate (intermediate and below) does it say anything about perfectly conjugated verbs and correctly placed accents. It is not even until intermediate-mid that students are expected to navigate past, present and future tenses.
Only tell your students that you encourage them to take risks with the language if you actually mean it. Don’t tell someone that you want him to try to communicate and then penalize him when he uses the infinitive instead of the first-person when he’s trying to tell you something that he wants you to know about his life. You will only do this one time before your kids catch on that you were not being genuine. It will take a long time to earn back their trust and they will stay clammed up until that happens.
“Making mistakes in language learning is not only necessary, it is a good sign. If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying enough to use the language.” – Steve Kaufmann
Be patient with the kid who spells the same word wrong for weeks on end. His unconscious mind is teaching him how to spell the word; he just has not seen it enough yet. When it finally clicks and he produces it correctly, the result is so much more desirable than the kid who can spell it correctly because it was an isolated word on a list. The second kid has no connection to the word because he did not learn it in a meaningful context. Furthermore, the second kid is probably not going to get many natural repetitions of the word later on in the year due to the fact that so many of the words in textbook lists are low-frequency and that there is no time to recycle words because of the sheer amount of vocabulary per chapter. Go ahead and give him a pop spelling quiz five months from now and see if he can a.) spell it correctly, b.) tell you what it means, and most importantly, c.) use it in a meaningful context. The first kid should be able to do all three at the drop of a hat if it is a high-frequency word that you have recycled throughout the year.
I have always had an uncanny ability to remember and spell words after seeing or hearing them only once, but I cannot expect the same of every one of my students. The truth is that the majority of people without the aid of spell check are just average spellers. A select few are exceptional and a small percentage of the population have truly atrocious spelling in any language.
5. “Everybody acquires language at a different rate.”
Anyone who is a parent of two or more children already understands this quite well. No two children’s language develops at exactly the same rate, but barring some underlying developmental issue, all children do eventually acquire their native language. There are a number of factors that affect the rate at which we acquire written and spoken language – whether the parents read to the child, presence of emotional trauma, nutrition, access to books, physiological differences, and even natural IQ.
All teachers, especially those in teaching in public schools, should be operating from a place of inclusivity. Accepting that a variance in individual language development exists is a non-negotiable for CI teachers. You are guaranteed to feel frustrated and ineffective until you accept this. Based on my conversations with parents, children whose first language emerged later are likely to experience the same when acquiring a second language. We have to accept that language acquisition occurs on its own schedule provided that our students are comprehending our input. You do not want – and thankfully cannot take – the responsibility of accelerating acquisition.
The pathway to proficiency is not a race. For example, my wife and I have two children, a six-year-old son and a two-and-a-half year old daughter. Our son was naming off national monuments by the time he was two-and-a-half, while our daughter only says a few short phrases such as “help me” and “bye bye.” There is no doubt in our minds that our daughter will eventually speak just as well as our son.
What do you make it a point to say to your students on the first day of class? Do you have a different message for your upper level students? Please leave a comment below – I’d love to hear how you start your year off!
Please share this resource: