I took French in high school and college. I wish I could say I was good at it, but at best, I can still ask the most basic questions and understand some context based on familiar vocabulary. I can also speak with a decent accent, thanks to my theatre training. Earlier in my career, when the majority of my English Language Learners (ELLs) spoke Haitian Creole, I was able to eke out some understanding with some of my rudimentary French skills. We managed to communicate well enough until they had absorbed enough English (which they learn about a year) to understand me without having to stumble through the language they understand more easily.
In the past five years, as our large immigrant population has shifted, our demographics have changed largely from French/Creole to Spanish speakers. As this was happening, I started to get panicky feelings. Now, the strategy I had to stay connected with these newer students was suddenly gone. Well, not gone, just a much greater challenge now.
I’ve always maintained that the most important part of teaching is cultivating relationships. When I consider my ELLs, I recognize that there is a considerable barrier between us. I do my best to put myself in their shoes, not only because I feel it is the right thing to do, but because in our hallways, I actually am in their shoes. As they casually chat with one another in the language they feel most comfortable with, I am listening from the outside, wondering what they might be chatting about: Their family? The person they are having a crush on? The homework they are struggling with? As I would listen, feeling somewhat in the dark, I realized I would have to start doing some work. I needed to figure out how to learn (and retain) more Spanish.
Fighting waning plasticity
Language acquisition is best learned by the young. When small children learn language, they listen, they develop the phonemes inherent to that language, then they practice words, short phrases, and eventually develop fluency. In this “critical period,” their brains are wired to even learn multiple languages if they are spoken with regularity in the home. They develop a large library of sounds that they practice and reproduce, then are able to switch from one to the other with ease. Their brains are attuned to learning in this way, soaking up information like a sponge and parroting it back with proper accents, grammar and flow.
Adults, however, are far removed from that critical period. Psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doige examines the challenge that adults have with new language acquisition in his book “The Brain That Changes Itself” (2007). While an adult brain can and does learn, it suffers from a reduction in plasticity as compared to that of the critical period in childhood. As adults, we are constantly competing for space in our brains with all of the new skills we are acquiring all of the time. Every time we add a new skill, the brain holds on to those that we practice on a regular basis. It’s a use-it-or-lose-it sort of thing. He refers to it as competitive plasticity; since we spend so much time on our native language, it is so hard to “learn a new language and end the tyranny of the mother tongue.” This seems to explain why it is so hard for adults to acquire a new language – so much of our brain space is taken up with the language we use every day, we have scant little space left to add new words, much less new sentences with grammatical acumen.
What do I do then, if my 50-year-old brain struggles to ask basic questions and put the simplest of sentences together in Spanish? I have to communicate somehow with all of my students. Over the years, I have developed a few strategies that help.
First, I’ll start with basic content area words – the go-to ideas that I know I will use every day: move side to side (muevete lado a lado), come here (ven aqui), watch (¡mira!), listen (¡escuchen!). At the very least, my new English speakers will know that I know something that is familiar to them, and they might be a little more inclined to keep their attention on the teacher.
Second, since I teach dance, I do a lot of physical demonstrating that I narrate in both English and Spanish words when I can, so they also get a new conceptual connection in real time. In person, it also gives me a chance to reach out to my bilingual kids and consult with their expertise. I can, on the fly, say “how do you say ‘turn’?” (rotacion) or “don’t step on your own feet!” (¡No pises tu pie!). It’s a great teaching tool that accomplishes several things: it shows that I’m not afraid of learning something new; it gives certain kids a bit of a leadership role; it alerts the ELL’s to who the helpers are; it shows that getting help is part of accessing your resources; it shows that their teacher cares enough to try to teach them where they are.
Third, I have become quite friendly with Google Translate, especially since we went back to remote learning. All of my online assignments are translated in Spanish, so I have a better shot at keeping those kids on task, even if I can’t translate my speech in real time. I know that idiomatic expressions don’t go over well, but seeing an immediate translation helps me to see how to communicate things that I might say on a regular basis. Every once in a while, I’ll see it enough and it will somehow stick to my brain space map and I might have the courage to actually use it out loud.
The other day, when I was in class with all the avatars, I was trying to say a few things in Spanish to be helpful, and I couldn’t figure out the word for “after.” Quietly and with frustration, I murmured to myself “how to I say ‘after’ in Spanish?” From the ether, I hear despues. A big smile came over my face. My kids were listening. They were looking out for me, just like I was looking out for them. I thanked my student profusely and genuinely, because she was patiently teaching me and my old, less plastic brain.
An interesting caveat: While I cannot think fluently in any language other than English (and sometimes even that is a challenge), my brain does try hard to retrieve the phrases I know when I need it. Sometimes, I think I can bring a new turn of phrase up through sheer will (I can’t, but thanks for trying.) In those times, just when I am trying to remember a common French phrase, it comes up in Spanish, and vice versa. It’s the darnedest thing. Now, I have random phrases and questions in two languages floating in my brain, competing for space. Frustrating? You betcha.
Despite the temporary frustration I feel in those moments, I always circle back to how my ELLs must feel in my class and in school in general. Some of them are looking at a computer for the first time. Some haven’t been in a “proper” school environment in quite some time, if ever. I can only imagine what their life experience is that brought them to my class. Imagine being deposited into an unfamiliar environment where most people do not speak your language. So, the least I can do is try my best to make them feel like a stranger actually cares; like I, su maestra, am a person they can trust with their well-being.
Even though I struggle to connect with them in their home language, I know that in a year from now, they will be old pros chatting in English about their families, their crushes, or just how crazy their dance teacher is. When they come back to me next year, a little wiser, they’ll have their chance to take the lead.