Weekly reflection: Speaking in Tongues

New Zealand Graduating Teacher Standard 1.d

Graduating Teachers have content and pedagogical content knowledge for supporting English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners to succeed in the curriculum.

Unless you understand the Korean alphabet, this sign probably looks like hieroglyphics. (Photo by me)

Our key topic this week was English as Additional Language (EAL) learners, which is the current phrase to describe students who enter school speaking another language. This topic got me reflecting about my own experiences in learning language and living in another country.

When I first arrived I knew NOTHING and felt completely disorientated and confused, basic stuff was such a trial. I once remember trying to buy two pieces of chicken and ended up with two boxes of fried chicken. Needless to say I ended up eating nothing but fried chicken for a week after that incident.

I started formally learning Korean after about 18 months living in the country. By that time I had already picked up a lot of vocabulary and grammar off the kids and the taxi drivers (in a country of no street names, you quickly learn left, right, straight and stop).

The content of this Cyrillic sign is probably a lot easier to guess. (Photo by me)

You might be surprised to know I had already learned the alphabet. This was done by listening and reading the station names being announced on the subway station rather than transliterating Korean sounds into English (which was a cumbersome process). Although reading signs where I already knew the sounds like ‘McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut’ etc. were also good ways of cross-checking my reading progress.

But then I started taking evening Korean classes for foreigners at one of the universities which was when my language skills improved. While I easily had the largest vocabulary of the class, my grammar was particularly shoddy and I didn’t understand the rules of the Korean alphabet well enough to write. Going to formal lessons gave me a framework for my prior learning and my language skills improved quite rapidly from stammering words out, to forming actual sentences and even managing to accomplish tasks like getting the air conditioner in my apartment fixed. The class also gave me an opportunity to practice the language with people who had a similar level to me.

I tried to practice Korean as much as I could outside of class, and often tried to talk to other teachers at the middle school I was working at. Out of all the members of staff the person I enjoyed practicing my Korean with the best was the school’s Japanese teacher. This may seem odd but is actually quite logical. My limited grasp of Korean meant that the English teachers would switch to English as soon as I got stuck. While those staff members who knew no English often found it difficult to communicate with me because they had no experience of learning a language themselves and in many cases I was the first Korean learner many of them had met. However the Japanese teacher, who didn’t speak much English, understood how to communicate with me because was not only a language learner herself but was obviously teaching a language for a living.

1. Speak slowly and clearly
No you don’t have to be like the ugly tourist and over-exaggerate your pronunciation, in fact that will make it harder for the learner to understand you. But slow down and make sure you pronounce each word clearly. New Zealanders in particular are good at running words together ‘youwannagrabsumfushunchips.’ This was something I didn’t notice until I spent a few years abroad and found myself adjusting to the New Zealand accent when I called home.

2. Use simple sentence structures
‘Close the door please’ is a lot easier to understand than ‘would you mind closing the door for me.’ Likewise conversation fillers like umm, ahh, yeah, right are more verbal noise that the learner has to decipher. Avoid ‘thinking out loud’ around language learners. It goes without saying that idioms, slang and colloquialisms are also bothersome for those learning a new language.

3. Give time to for the learner to formulate a response
As a second language learner my pet hate was people not giving me enough time to think. Sometimes it takes a while for a second language speaker to process what they’ve heard and rummage around for the correct grammar and vocabulary to respond, so be patient! Moreover some learners might not yet feel confident to speak up but that doesn’t mean they aren’t learning (think of me on the subway station).

4. Let learners make mistakes
Me: Kimchi good taste.

Japanese teacher: Yes Kimchi tastes good.

What I liked about talking with the Japanese teacher was she was very good at finding ways to let me know about my mistakes but did so in a manner that didn’t make me lose confidence. In the above example the teacher acknowledged that I thought kimchi tasted good but still let me know the correct grammar for next time.

5. Group work is important
Learning languages is a social process. Yes learning grammar and vocabulary is important but not having an opportunity to use language with peers is what I valued most from the classes.

My experience has made me mindful of how hard learning a language is (ok I could have learned an easier language). Doing so while also having completing regular school must be a difficult and frustrating process. What amazing people EAL learners are.

What languages have you learned in the past? How has this influenced your teaching practice?