Since I first began teaching more than seven years ago, I have had students who have spoken more than a dozen languages. My students over the years have spoken Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, English, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Urdu, and Vietnamese. According to Sharon Adelman Reyes and Tatyana Kleyn, “All teachers can and must find ways to show students that their languages and cultures are not just valuable tools for learners, but valuable parts of who they are” (2010, p. 39). I have always valued the diversity of my students and sought to learn bits of their languages while they were in my care, and in more recent years have encouraged my students to do the same. By demonstrating an interest in their language, I am also demonstrating that it has value and helping to curb the attitudes such as those found by Josie Freeman and Rebeca Madrigal in which “Not all of the families believe that learning their native language is an asset to their academic and personal growth” (2010, p. 124).
Because of my investment in connecting with my students and learning the languages spoken in my classroom, I am generally able to find parents willing to mentor me in their language. But one year is not enough time for me to become fluent in a language from these few bits and pieces picked up from students and their families before they move on to another classroom. Greater depth is needed and, while my community may predominantly use one culture or another, it is always but a pocket within an English-speaking world and my encounters with my mentor parents are too sporadic to be effective. The act still held value in that “When we consider carefully what families bring, by conducting home visits or even just by asking questions, we find that parents can contribute to a wide range of content areas by sharing their real-world experiences” (2010, p. 146), but for my personal path as a language learner it was not enough. I used to speak Spanish fairly well in early childhood, but even that language has eluded me through these basic interactions. As Reyes and Kleyn reveal, “when there are aspects that differ from one language to the next, explicit instruction becomes necessary” (2010, p. 98).
However, language instruction programs usually require either attending classes (which can be complicated to work into a schedule that already includes both college and teaching), or paying a great deal of money for programs like Rosetta Stone. However, just over four months ago I discovered a free program called Duolingo. It was created only about a year before I found it, and its educational model uses translation of sentences to teach the language. As you become more advanced you are encouraged to help translate articles from the internet (regular readers may have noticed over the past several months that I have been adding comments to my older posts which read “Thanks to the assistance of the Duolingo language community, this post is now available in Spanish / Gracias a la comunidad lingüística Duolingo, este publicación está ahora disponible en español”).
I was skeptical of the instructional model in the beginning. After all, based on my knowledge of language instruction I feared that translation-only instruction was not an effective pedagogical method. Elizabeth Silva indicates that it is also important to “incorporate links to prior knowledge, preview unfamiliar vocabulary, and provide visuals” (2010, p. 129). However, as I was making a dedicated effort to learn the language, and I didn’t limit myself to Duolingo’s pedagogical strategies, I found it to be quite an effective primary learning tool. I continued to follow my usual course of trying to learn all the languages of my students, including Spanish, by talking to them and their families. I would also occasionally call up my Chilean relatives, play games like Scrabble in Spanish, and engage in online conversations in Spanish with other Duolingo users. I found that as time went on I was able to communicate more and more effectively with my Spanish speaking students and their families.
I vividly remember the moment one of my students came up to me out of the blue and asked me, “¿Qué estás haciendo?” to which I replied, without even realizing the student had spoken in Spanish, “I’m putting away the food.” We both laughed when we realized what had just happened. Not only does this moment reflect a defining point of progress in my own development, it also represents one in that student’s as well. When I first met this student they had attempted to deny that they spoke anything other than English. Since that time the student has not only acknowledged that they speak Spanish, but even gotten to the point of code switching in the classroom. Reyes and Kleyn reveal that “The extent to which a person actively alternates between cultures determines the ease with which competency in both cultures will be maintained” (2010, p. 33).
In addition to the language learning strategies I have already mentioned using to help me learn Spanish, I have also taken to reading to myself in Spanish. At first it was a few books from my collection of children’s books, but the vocabulary in those books was rather limited. While I realize that, as Reyes and Kleyn reveal, “learning vocabulary, unlike learning the phonological or morphological system of a language, is a never-ending process” (2010, p. 76), I wanted to do as much as I could to facilitate my vocabulary growth as I reached the more advanced stages of the structural knowledge I gained from Duolingo, so at a certain point I made a decision that I would find something with more advanced language that would also captivate my interest. After asking a few bilingual teachers and getting suggestions that only partially appealed to my interest, I discovered that a book written in Russian and translated twice into English, and one that was the topic of the post that launched this blog, was available in Spanish as well.
As I read Vygotsky’s Pensamiento y Lenguaje (2012) in the classroom during our independent reading time, many children have taken to looking at it as well. The idea that “children need to read to learn and not only learn to read” (2010, p. 69) is reinforced when the children see me reading an informational text and they decide to pick it up themselves, not because it has exciting pictures as the other books in the classroom do (which it does not), but because reading is an inherently noteworthy act.
It is my hope that, after taking a trip to Mexico to solidify my conversational skills this summer, I will obtain my bilingual endorsement and begin truly learning yet another language spoken by my students. Duolingo has helped me to see that it is possible to learn a complete language rather than just a few simple words and phrases that are useful in the classroom. Seeing how much I have learned from Duolingo in Spanish, I am constantly in search of bilingual people to help Duolingo develop courses for some of the other languages spoken by my students. Currently it only offers courses in four of the fifteen languages mentioned at the beginning of this post, with bilinguals currently contributing to two others. That leaves another nine languages with no foreseeable means to learn them in the same manner as I have now learned Spanish, but perhaps by the time I have learned those six languages the other nine will either be available or I will have discovered another free pedagogical source as effective as Duolingo.
In the meantime, I will continue reading and learning in Spanish. I hope to have finished reading Pensamiento y Lenguaje in time to make it the topic of my one year anniversary blog post next month, which I hope to write in Spanish as well. If you have other books you would like to see me discuss in the future, please comment on the Recommended Reading page.
Reyes, S.A. & T. Kleyn. (2010). Teaching in 2 languages: A guide for K-12 bilingual educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Vygotsky, L.S. (2012 ). Pensamiento y lenguaje (J. Itzigsohn, Ed. & Tran.). Tlaxpana, México: Ediciones Quinto Sol.