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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 2; March 04

Short Article

The Heart of the Matter
"Learning to Teach by Learning a Language"

Lou Spaventa, Cal, USA

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Chi va piano
Va sano e va lontano

(One who goes slowly goes safely and far.) Italian proverb

I was wrong! I can remember thinking some years ago that colleagues who trained language teachers but who themselves had not taught language for years were lacking in their understanding of theory and practice. I was wrong. Authenticity does not automatically derive from activity in a field, but rather is a product of reflective practice. Furthermore, a good trainer of teachers is skilled in the art of engaging others, which is not necessarily a function of classroom experience. In short, even if you practice what you preach, that fact by itself doesn't make you an effective trainer of teachers. On the other hand, I still hold that if you are a good language teacher trainer, then you are at least a competent and thoughtful language teacher.

Teachers are busy people. If you teach, you prepare lessons, teach classes, assess student performance, go to staff meetings, and maintain a professional presence in the field. Perhaps you may even write articles and books or engage in research. You are a busy person. How do you keep yourself current with language teaching pedagogy? How do you maintain a connection to your students as you grow further apart in age and interest from them? These are difficult questions to answer, but my recent experience as an intensive language student for one week has helped me answer at least the first question in part.

This semester, Spring 2004, I am director of a group of 31 Santa Barbara City College students who are studying abroad in Florence, Italy. I also teach two courses in the program. Students may choose to study art history, European history, and Italian, along with my two courses, "Intercultural Communication," and "Creative Writing." In the afternoons I study Italian for two hours, five days a week. During our spring break, while my students were traveling all over Europe, I decided to use the time to study Italian intensively. I studied for 5 days, 6 hours a day, at a language school in Florence. I had two hours of grammar and four hours of conversation. My level was "advanced." I put that word in inverted commas because when I compare myself to ESL students in advanced courses at my college, I do not think I have the command of Italian that they do of English at an advanced level. My classmates, by the way, were almost all Europeans: Spanish, Swiss, German, Czech, with an occasional New World student in the mix two Colombians, a Texan. The students were mostly of traditional age, that is to say from 18 to 23 or so.

I describe my situation in order to prepare the reader to consider what I am about to say in light of the kind of studying I did and the kind of class of which I was part. What I rediscovered, from a student point of view, is what things work and what things don't work for me in a language classroom. Many aspects of good teacher practice were confirmed for me while aspects of poor practice were as well.

What worked for me as a learner? First, I rediscovered the value of immediate, matter of fact, oral correction done judiciously, that is to say, done with knowledge of a student's learning needs in mind and done sparingly. When I forgot to use 'essere' to conjugate the past tense and used 'avere' to do so, it helped to hear a quick correction from the instructor. (Italian speakers and learners will recognize the problem of having to learn two auxiliaries to conjugate the pasato prossimo in Italian.) The second thing I relearned is the value of allowing students to build fluency even though they may make frequent errors. I needed to build up my ability to hold the floor in Italian, to get beyond simple statements and responses. By allowing me space to speak, the instructor helped me to build fluency. This is the other side of the correction coin. The third thing I relearned, and this might seem a bit strange given the standard critique of positive reinforcement in the language classroom, is that positive feedback in the form of a "bravo" made me feel validated. I liked hearing this sort of language from my instructor. Fourth, along with positive feedback goes validation from having one's ideas and opinions honored. When I put an idea out on the floor, and my instructor said, " Hai7 ragione, Luigi," I felt like I had said something worthwhile. This sort of teacher interaction worked for me as a learner. Apart from classroom interaction, there were other things that worked for me. I will call them learning tools.

The first learning tool is a technique. For one conversation class, I had to prepare a newspaper article summary for presentation in class each day. This really worked for me because I could choose the article according to my interests. This would push me to learn new words for my written summary. What I conclude from this is that student input facilitates student learning. Next in terms of learning tools is the value of an interesting text as a starting point for conversation. What makes a text interesting for me is an open-endedness that allows students to take different points of view and come to different conclusions about the text. Such texts were excellent starting points for classroom conversation. Each time my instructor brought us such a text, conversation flowed in the classroom. The third tool is a good monolingual dictionary. After I began to use a good Italian dictionary, my comprehension of words and how Italians understood those words increased. I got more of a feeling for Italian than I had had with my bilingual Italian-English, English-Italian dictionary. Finally, I found value in materials that were well organized, clearly printed, stuck to a single topic, and were well thought out as if anticipating what students would do with them when they received them.

What was the other side of the coin? What didn't work for me as a student of Italian? My first bete noire is negative affect in the classroom. It came about for me when we were assigned round robin grammar exercises without a context. The exercises focused on form for form's sake. Getting it right was the payoff, not communication. These exercises were suffocating and soporific. Everyone was bored. Another source of negativity in the classroom for me was student rudeness. I am thinking here of the student who doesn't hesitate to show disinterest by opening a newspaper or checking a cell phone for messages, or the student who begins a loud and long conversation with a partner in their native language. These behaviors turned me off and got me upset. Even when I was bored, I wouldn't insult the instructor by shoving it in his or her face. Negative affect really inhibited my learning and decelerated my learning.

The second of the negative aspects of my experience has to do with perception of instructor fairness and equilibrium. When I was asked to prepare an article for class presentation, but was not chosen to present the article (This in a class of about 10 students), or when my floor time or reading aloud time were much less than that of other students, I felt treated unfairly. A final issue in perception has to do with responding to the instructor's emotional state. When my instructor showed irritation, boredom or anger, I became less secure and less grounded in the learning experience. For example, during one class, the instructor in the class next door could be heard repeating Italian words in a loud voice to her beginning students. This bothered our instructor. Then some workmen outside began to hurl cement tiles into a pickup truck. This nearly enraged the instructor. The class didn't quite know how to act seeing this.

The last negative aspect of my intensive learning experience was classroom environment. Our classrooms had walls which seemed to attract and amplify sound rather than keep it out. The rooms themselves were narrow with high ceilings, resulting in awful acoustics. Often I couldn't hear anyone but the student next to me. In addition, the small chairs made sitting uncomfortable and the narrow tables made it difficult to find a space for texts, dictionaries and notebooks. Finally, I hesitate to put this forth, but here it is anyway, when I was in a classroom near the school's well-used toilets, I immediately knew it. Enough written about that.

The last issue of relearning to teach by learning language that I wish to raise is that of homogeneity in classroom groupings. This works. In my first conversation class, there was a young woman who always tried to dominate the discussion. This made it difficult for me to get a word in; however, it also made me try harder to get the floor. In my second class, I found myself with a group of rather less advanced talkers. Of the two sorts of classes, the first, despite the talkative young lady, was at my level, and was preferable to the second, in which the other students were not quite there. In my grammar class, I came into the third week of a class that had already formed. I joined the class toward the middle of the battle of the Italian subjunctive, which I assuredly lost. Because I hadn't studied with the group the previous two weeks of grammar and because I was not tested into the class, I lagged behind, desperately looking up verb forms to put into fill-in-the-blank exercises in class. Each victory, each right answer, I treated like a lucky roll of the dice. I had no real idea of how I'd done it. I couldn't absorb the learning because it seemed too much a product of chance. There were too many variables; verb inflections, sequence of tenses, moods and degrees of certainty, negation and inference for me to believe that I had any control over the language. I had reached overload. Nothing was going in input was not becoming intake.

So what do I take away from my intensive week of Italian language study? First, I have a renewed respect for the affective variables of language learning, especially instructor sensitivity to student psycho-emotional state of mind. Secondly, an appreciation of well constructed language teaching materials. Thirdly, concern for the external physical and affective influences on student performance. Finally, an anecdotal confirmation of stage theory in second language learning despite 30 hours of study as against my normal 10 hour week, I was not able to accelerate my learning past the stage at which I find myself. So, I guess "Chi va piano, va sano e lontano."


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