Reflections on Teaching a Foreign Language
Reflections After 30 Years in the Classroom
It Involves More than Just Teaching the Language
Each level of language teaching presents its own challenges, and each has its respective sets of possible solutions. A beginning language series of classes is usually taken by freshmen for their entire first year of college. In such a class, I attempt to open freshmen students’ minds to the discipline, study habits, features and benefits of studying a foreign language generally, and Spanish in particular. Since many students take it without reflecting, or with the idea that Spanish is the “easy” language with which to fulfill a requirement, language professors generally are tasked with “re-selling” students on their choice. Students are variously receptive to frank discussion of how Spanish might or might not fit into their life’s goals.
At times, this involves only an extra-curricular comment, but sometimes during a class, an opportunity for an anecdotal lesson will arise. I try to find ways to refresh attention by briefly taking the focus of the class elsewhere, to reflect on the nature of language, language study and culture. When I find students who are receptive or open to suggestion, I reinforce the response and try to use it to stimulate others. Over the years, I have worked to incorporate instructive anecdotes less intrusively, with varying degrees of success. Exhortation, after all, has limited effectiveness. However, anecdotes may also tempt me into what some perceive as too much self disclosure or to digress.
Large class size, a function of the business side of higher education, limits one-on-one interaction, but at the same time provides opportunities for recruiting majors, minors and my favorite, the double major. My greatest personal challenge is to keep the less engaged students on task and seek signals from them about how to bring their personal interests to bear on language learning. Opportunities for oral practice are designed to permit some controlled exchanges. The design comes either from textbook suggestions or my own creativity, or from lessons learned in workshops training in Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI), theory and technique (the equivalent of the Foreign Service’s FSI). These exchanges incorporate topics to engage their lives. Most students respond enthusiastically to opportunities for expressing their own ideas.
Teaching basic language classes requires more than that the professor be fluent in that language. That is only the beginning. Knowledge of the target culture is also essential. Language, culture and identity form a complex nexus of interacting and mutually reinforcing modes of expressing oneself, perceiving the world and valuing others. In the case of the Spanish language, this is compounded by the existence of many regional differences with which I am familiar by formal education, travel, work and life experiences.
A keen sense of the differences and an ability to highlight, contrast and compare structures is also essential to successfully teach the language. By varying the pace and having more than one objective per class session, I harness or recharge my creative energies and those of my students. A professor of language is always challenged by disparate levels of student preparedness, disposition and inclination, both on a fluctuating, daily basis and at the level of personalities of his students. This creates a constantly moving target audience, and results in the best and worst moments in teaching. On the positive side, it is never boring.
Intermediate and advanced language classes present the challenge of having students with increasingly disparate levels of linguistic preparedness than beginners. This circumstance is logical and expected. It results from such factors as students who transfer to a school from other programs, those who have varying degrees of life experience because some of them were raised abroad for whatever reason, others who are heritage speakers and so forth. These differences often can be addressed more easily because the class size of intermediate classes tend to be much smaller than in the required, or beginning sequence. That means there is more time for individual assessment and adjustments in assignments on a one-to-one basis. Language teaching in these courses becomes much more like the way we all learn our mother tongue: in community or even a family-like setting.
The rewards come when a student has a beautiful experience using the language and tells you about it.