…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.