Do you remember…

…what it feels like to be a novice? Remember how it feels to be surrounded by a new language?

I just spent a few days in and out of great sessions at this year’s SCOLT conference in Orlando, FL. I went to an awesome session by Ben McMaine about what he’s learned from his unique experiences abroad. As he described learning how to survive using a totally new language like Russian and Mandarin, similar memories started flooding back.

I remembered sitting down at a cafe or restaurant, finally figuring out what I wanted to order (or just something I could understand from the menu), and planning out what I was going to say. Then the waiter would come, say something unexpected and I’d be totally caught off guard. I’d mumble something and awkwardly point to a picture, wondering how it all fell apart so quickly.

That’s what it feels like to be a novice!

Luckily, when traveling we have the opportunity to practice ordering food 3-5 times a day for several days in a row. By the end of a trip, we’re much better prepared to handle that situation. I recently tried learning some Indonesian before a trip to Jakarta. I listened to a ton of podcasts and learned practical phrases.  Then I got to Jakarta…and it was much more real. What was that one word? What sound does that letter make? Wait…What does that mean? It was a challenge! 

What would happen if more teachers tried to learn a 3rd, 4th or 5th language?

What if we switched OUR phones to another language? Or changed OUR home computer’s homepage to one from another culture?

I think there might be some big “ah-ha” moments. I think we might be able to better understand and connect with our students.  I think we might be reminded of the following:

1.) Mistakes are part of the process.

I know I’ve mispronounced many words in many languages, but I’m usually understood. As a novice learner, I needed people to understand me. I was sooo excited to communicate, and I can work out some of those mistakes over time. Same with our kids… let them communicate!

2.) It’s okay to find tools to help you communicate.

I don’t normally promote Google Translate… but I totally use it when traveling to a new country. What tools can we give them to communicate? Technology can’t do everything, but if it helps students find the right word or feel more confident it’s not all bad.

3.) We need lots of chances to get it right.

I’m so grateful I wasn’t graded on each and every one of my choppy attempts at ordering food. However, with enough practice, I felt comfortable. Practice makes perfect, and we need to try to give our students lots of authentic opportunities to use the language before we expect them to really master the skill.

I once heard a nurse say that being a patient made her a better nurse. Ben’s session helped me remember what it feels like to be a novice and challenged me to hold on to that feeling. Let’s all be language learners. It will definitely make us better teachers.

6 comments

  1. Kevin Kirton

    Great post, exactly my experience. When I started to learn German I suddenly had lots of new insights (and old memories) of how it feels to be a beginner.

  2. Kelly Ochoa

    Great insight! I just wish that I could convince the kids not to use Google translate to write their sentences for them. No matter how many times I tell them that I would rather see a sentence with a mistake than a perfectly Google translated one, I still get the Google translated one.

    • I found the same Kelly so I felt like I had to mix it up. They are trained that “perfect” is important in school. Here’s when I noticed that my students turned to translators (in a bad way) and how I adjusted:
      1) The task was above their proficiency level. – So I needed to make sure my wording and the task met their level. My niece recently called me wanting some Spanish “help.” She said that she needed to describe her dream house. She wanted to know how to say “It WOULD have…” She freaked because she didn’t know it! I looked at the project guidelines and the teacher only expected simple present tense phrases like “My dream house HAS…” However the project’s wording sounded like they needed more complicated language.
      2) When I marked mistakes on their writings (even if it was only on one assignment). I was sending the wrong message. – Now I don’t mark ANY mistakes, only give feedback based on rubric.
      3) When I sent something home. Their time is limited so what’s the quickest way?? – Now everything is done in class. Homework changed to be based on community/connections/comparisons/research/prep work.
      4) I assigned mostly writing tasks during a class. Plus I was giving them too much or too little time to complete them too. – So I switched to more speaking (on the spot) than writing. This took time to transition and get them to buy in, but worth it!
      Overall I found there were some patterns, so I could better plan to eliminate some of it.

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  4. Barb

    I’m having the experience of being a novice speaker in my own classroom. In addition to teaching Spanish, I also teach 7th grade reading, and we had a student from Haiti move in two weeks ago who knows no English. Trying to communicate with her has reminded me how hopeless it feels to not know a language – and helped me see even more clearly the limitations of Google translate!

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