How did you learn to speak? How did you begin to understand your parents' first commands? You probably didn't spend eighty five minutes every other day in a classroom until you got it. It was most likely a natural progression. From your first words, to the first time you asked for milk or water, to the first time you wrote your name correctly was an eventuality because your entire world was such a constant barrage of auditory and visual stimuli that your brain had no choice but to create meaning from it. That was my experience, and yours too. My stimulus was always in Spanish, yours… it could be any language, but we both still learned our first language, and we learned it well, evidence provided by the fact I am able to write this unit and you are able to read and use it. So if the majority of us learn our first language so well, why do so many of us have such difficulty learning a second language? Does our brain forget how to learn language? Is learning a second language fundamentally different than learning our first? How can we as World Language teachers tap into how we learned our first languages, and avoid using translation to teach students a new language?
In writing this unit I addressed the subject of language acquisition without the use of translation for my unit topic for the Yale New Haven Teacher's Institute because I wanted to find out the best way to continuously link language to an idea through image rather than translation. Most students would think that the easiest and fastest way to learn a new language is direct translation. Many people have become very fluent through years of hard work and dedication, but since 1982 most professionals follow the proficiency guidelines of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), according to which direct translation is not the best way to go. Proficiency in a foreign language can be acquired without translation through the use of simple and complex images.
We all have the ability to speak at least one language fluently. Most of us, excluding those with severe disabilities, learn how to speak naturally as toddlers as we grow. However, few of us ever become bilingual or trilingual. There are many differences between learning one's mother tongue and learning another language in a classroom. In fact, according to ACTFL, students who reach and pass AP Spanish should be at only the fifth (out of ten) level of proficiency, which is Intermediate-Mid. Why is it so difficult for so many students to learn a second language? How can teachers maximize how much students learn in a short amount of time? How can we use pictures and images to teach more than just colors, actions, and objects?