In this curriculum unit I explore the different schools of thought on the percentage of target language that should be used during instruction in a World Language classroom, as well as take a look at how the brain actually learns language and how learning more than one language can affect other areas of learning. Next I share some research on how images can be used to teach language, and finally I share my conclusions on language learning and what teachers can do to help students understand not just what they are learning, but how their brains are actually learning the material.
As World Language teachers, we try to do several things throughout the course of a class. In most states we use the national standards that go with the five C's: Communication, Culture, Comparisons, Community, and Connections. New Haven Public Schools like to focus on professional development on just one or two of these areas each year. This year it has been Communication. There are three types of communication. Interpersonal communication involves individuals talking back and forth, and this now includes texting. Presentational communication is about producing the language, and Interpretative communication is about comprehending the language, listening, and reading. Additionally, there are four modes of communication: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. When foreign language teachers are teaching, we are trying to hit all five C's as well as the four modes. It can be overwhelming, especially since many students feel as if learning a language is too difficult, and they are never motivated.
In my unit I attempt to teach only through the use of 100% target language and images. I think that if I eliminate the crutch of translation from the very beginning, and find a way for the students to be willing to grapple with the difficulty curve, the students will begin to understand how their brains learn and retain information, and including a lesson about just that subject will create a new dynamic in the classroom. Not only will students be learning a new language, but they will be consciously practicing to learn in general because they will be aware of how brains work. I already use pictures to teach many things, however, through my research I have found out how to use images for more complex ideas, even using pictures for grammar.
One of the major things that differentiates New Haven from the other school districts is the sheer number of Magnet Schools. Hyde School of Health Science and Sports Medicine is one of those schools. The school changed from a Leadership Program to a Health Science school just a few years ago, and it was not given a curriculum – a challenging position to say the least. As a high school Spanish teacher at a New Haven magnet school, I am always looking for ways to engage my students in the theme of our magnet as it relates to Medical Spanish concepts. Each year I work to write units taught through a health science lens and I have found that the Yale New Haven Teacher's Institute is an excellent way to collaborate with colleagues and experts in the field to write engaging and relevant units for my students. This year, as a participant in the "Picture Writing" seminar, I am focusing on developing a unit for my Spanish 1 and Spanish 2 students that uses images and not translation of any kind to teach vocabulary and grammatical concepts.
In the summer of 2012, I went through Connecticut's Alternate Route for Certification Program for World Languages with a cohort of 13 other future teachers. One of the main questions we aimed to tackle that summer was "What amount of target language is too much when teaching an introductory class?" It was a question that we all had opinions on, and one that our professors couldn't answer definitively. We all came to agree that language immersion, when you are experiencing only that particular language, is the best way to become fluent and master a language. For example, when a person who is learning Spanish moves to Costa Rica for 6 months, he or she will have gotten much more proficient in Spanish through sheer exposure. But, how much language does one need to become immersed and not submerged? Can students get to a place of proficiency using only the target language so that they can then go immerse themselves in a new setting? Some students will surely travel to a Spanish speaking country; however, the majority of them will never get that opportunity. As community members of New Haven, which has a very high population of Latinos, we would find it interesting to be able to walk down the street and communicate in Spanish at any of the various businesses in Fair Haven. In addition, those students who reach a certain level of proficiency in Spanish and in Health Science or Sports Medicine skills are at a distinct advantage when looking to enter the field.
An example. During one of our many ARC sessions, the professor wanted to make a point about teaching only in the target language. The languages represented in our session ranged from Spanish, German, Chinese, and few others, so the professor decided to do a Swahili lesson. It's safe to assume none of us in the session had been exposed to Swahili before. He began with a prop. It was the toddler toy with different size and colored rings that you can stack on a stand. He slowly took each ring one by one and saying a word in Swahili, going back and forth and reviewing constantly. It became very clear very quickly that he was teaching us colors in Swahili, and after ten minutes, each of us fourteen could identify the colors with some proficiency. Our professor did not speak English one time during this lesson, which he pointed out during our debriefing. His conclusion: we can teach in only the target language.
While I appreciated this example and can use this same method to teach colors, I still felt like that was taking the easy way. It is easy to teach colors in the target language, just have different colors of the same thing, like his rings, point and speak, and repeat. There are still many questions about this that didn't go answered. How do we go from teaching simple concepts like colors, to more complex ones like grammar, tenses, and abstract ideas like "truth" and "freedom" using only the target language to teach?