Lessons on language acquisition — and overcoming the fear of making mistakes!
When I lived in Guatemala almost 20 years ago, I met Michael, a kindergarten teacher from NYC who radically changed my understanding of language acquisition. Michael said he had been shy his whole life. “But on my 35th birthday,” he told me, “I gave up being shy for good.” He came to Guatemala knowing just a handful of Spanish words, maybe 20 in total, but hungry to learn more. While many other students at the language school were painfully embarrassed to say the wrong thing in their new language, Michael seemed to have no problem speaking like a small child, although he was close to 40 years old at the time.
One day, walking in the city of Xela, he heard a car passing through the crowded streets, playing beautiful music. “I need to hear more of that music,” he told me, before running up to the car and exclaiming, “Música bien! Quién?” (Music good! Who?)
The driver laughed and stopped the car. He wrote down the singer’s name and said:
“La cantante se llama Maria Tecún. Se puede comprar su disco en esa tienda azul por allí.” (The singer’s name is Maria Tecún. You can buy her CD in that blue store over there).
“Ahh,” said Michael. “Maria Tecún. Cantante. Tienda azul. Gracias!”
With just three words, Michael had communicated an idea, got the CD he was interested in, and made a genuine, friendly and helpful human connection. Furthermore, his brain was absorbing correct grammar from the response, and the rush of excitement that accompanied the success spurred him to have many similar interactions. Needless to say, Michael learned the language at an incredible rate.
As the Upper Elementary Spanish teacher at Inly, thinking back on Michael’s experience brings two ideas front and center for me:
- Unpolished language must be appreciated. What could world language learning look like if we could get rid of the fear of making mistakes and appreciate unpolished language as an integral part of the language acquisition process?
- Language learning must be relational.
Growing fluency and overcoming the fear of making mistakes
One of the biggest limiting factors in world language learning is the fear of making a mistake. To free students of this notion, we try to normalize roughness of speech. Students try Spanish tongue twisters and play silly games using Spanish words. At the beginning of the year, all Upper Elementary grades gave me a tour of the school using only the Spanish words they already knew, combined with pantomime. This introduces students to circumlocution — “talking around things,” a key tool to growing fluency through use and feedback.
Focusing on the relational nature of language learning
“I get so excited when I witness students using Spanish with each other and with other teachers, because it means they are experiencing language as a vehicle for connection.”Greg Pehrson, Upper Elementary Spanish Teacher
Language is about communication, and communication is about relationships. In our Upper Elementary Spanish classes at Inly, students experience this relational nature in the following ways:
Relationship to their native language: When learning about Spanish/English cognates (words that sound similar and have similar meanings across languages), students are often surprised how many more words they can understand through recognizing common linguistic roots.
Relationship to one’s self and passions: Students build their own dictionaries of words they want to learn how to say in Spanish. Depending on the student, sometimes these lists are highly practical — e.g., “tired,” “basketball.” Other times they are fantastical, fun or delicious — “dragon,” “meme,” “cupcake.” But there is a personal relationship with these words, because they’ve been chosen by each individual student as important. We do skits with Spanish scripts. Often, as is developmentally appropriate for upper elementary and middle school, the skits are silly. But since the topic has been chosen by the students, the words stick, as does the flow of the language as a cohesive entity. The language they are using sounds like them, not like a textbook writer, and it builds comfort with the shape of the language, and a foundation to which grammar lessons can connect.
Relationship to each other: I get so excited when I witness students using Spanish with each other and with other teachers, because it means they are experiencing language as a vehicle for connection. When my students tell me they are getting together on a Friday night to work on their Spanish skit — not because they have to, but because they want to develop the story line further, practice their lines, and make costumes — I know we are letting language do what it is meant to do.
The World Language program at Inly School includes Spanish at all grade levels: Toddler, Preschool, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary and Middle School. To learn more, visit www.inlyschool.org/world-languages.
Greg Pehrson is Inly School’s Upper Elementary and Middle School Spanish teacher. Ironically, when he was in college, Greg took a Spanish class and was told by his professor that he was one of her “worst students” and that he “would never learn to speak Spanish.” Fortunately, that did not end up being his fate, but the experience propelled him to explore language-acquisition strategies outside of the traditional textbook-and-grammar-study classroom model. Soon after graduating from Brown University in 2000 with a B.A. in Sociology, Greg’s eagerness to learn Spanish brought him to a school in Guatemala, where his experience was similar to a Montessori classroom—individualized, student-centered learning through engaged and playful application. That journey helped Greg master the language, and he now loves using Spanish as a vehicle for communication, connection, self-expression, and justice.