This post started as part of a response to my friend Skip….and then it grew from there. Thanks Skip for asking me the questions that make me think.
I never wanted to be a Spanish teacher. I wanted to teach kindergarten…or third grade. I wanted to sing songs, read stories, and introduce my students to history and heroes. Actually that is what I do, I am just lucky enough to do it via Spanish. But that is not what most of my colleagues were doing when I started thirty-plus years ago. I truly admired and respected those teachers, I just couldn’t be one of them. Maybe it was because I didn’t start out as a Spanish major (although I ended up with a Spanish and an Education degree), or maybe it was because I wasn’t very confident about my language abilities at the time….but my goals as a language teacher were a bit different.
Truthfully, I never thought that I would be able to convince teenagers to commit to memory the hundreds of rules and thousands of words necessary to master the language. I loved it, but I never thought all of my students would. And I wanted ALL of my students to love Spanish class the way 5 year olds love kindergarten (okay…think 30 year prior to Common Core!)
Thirty years ago (and more), we used to consider it our job to teach the understanding and appreciation of the beauty of the language…its history, structure, details. And we did that. Sadly, few students were able to draw on any of this knowledge after a few months….much less a few years.
We then made it our goal to teach the students the vocabulary, verb forms and highly irregular patterns so that they could also communicate with others. We created texts and materials that we thought would help our students to be able to put all of the pieces of the language in order to function while traveling, doing business etc.. But we still taught as if mastering the al to help students to communicate. It was a great deal of work, and yes.. fun, to create activities that allowed students to pretend that they could communicate in a real-life situation.
Sadly, once again, students failed to retain the language for any length of time.
It was the first reason I was so impressed with the results of TPRS and teaching with Comprehensible Input. The language stuck. For a long, long time. I was pretty excited about that!
Then along came technology.
I think that our job as language teachers has seriously shifted. And I am afraid we may not even know it.
Any knowledge about the language that students need can be found easily on the Internet. All of it. Communication can occur with a cell phone and an app. And almost instantly. And with about the same accuracy that our students used to have….probably more.
I had a great reason to switch from learning to acquisition in my classroom. But if my students can just use a machine to communicate…..why would it even matter if they acquire a language?
What IS our job now? Why would students need to be able to communicate…device-free…in a world quickly becoming overrun with devices? Why do they need us? Can’t they get all of the language they need via technology?
I think we need to be asking ourselves, and our profession, that question. What are we doing that students cannot now do for themselves…..without us?
For me (and you’ve heard me say this I think), I want my students to acquire Spanish in order to explore the hearts, minds and souls of people who speak Spanish. I want them to acquire Spanish so that they can think more deeply, express feelings to others, ask questions about the universe and SHARE that journey with people of other cultures…..and they can do that so much better in more than one language. AND WITH A PERSON…not a machine.
I believe that our job is less about teaching the language and more about using the language to teach the skill of making personal, social, historical, artistic and even political connections.
I believe that our job is about establishing relationships, nourishing relationships, growing as a result of relationships …..Relationships that are a)built via communicating so that we are understood in another language and b)built because we understand others in their language .
It’s about understanding….and being understood as a human being. It’s a job that no machine can do.
They need us for that.
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