Can they do it? and other thoughts

Can-Do statements
Last night, my group of beginning Russian adult students and I were invited to a reception for visiting Russians who are working on issues of oil spill and other disaster containment. We had half an hour for a lesson, and then the Russians showed up. These students have had three one-hour lessons so far, and while they’re doing great on understanding basics, I normally wouldn’t expect them to try so early to converse with Russians who aren’t used to talking with new speakers.

The novice-low to novice-mid statements talk about being able to introduce oneself in basic terms. We practiced saying names and responding to Russians’ introductions; I made sure everyone could say that they had children studying Russian, and that they could tell where they worked. Then the Russians came. Our first conversation was with a gentleman who wanted to show off his English more than he wanted to share language, but he had an interesting question: “What was your first Russian word?” Then he wanted to know why they were taking Russian. We were back into English pretty quickly, but then an advanced student showed up and worked to answer him in Russian, making it easier for the beginners to follow the conversation.

I began to wonder whether the Can-Do statements are a good “curriculum guide.” My typical adult has one of three very different motivations: one is that they need to know the high-frequency words and lower-elementary school vocabulary that their children are using daily. Their children are charmed to be able to read stories with their parents, and the Storytelling technique works very well for this group. Others need Russian for traveling. Much of the vocabulary will overlap, though in Storytelling, I don’t usually include giving or following directions, and we don’t talk about room keys or ordering at a restaurant early on. We do talk about what we need, where it’s possible to find it, and not liking something that we buy or find. The third motivation is to be able to talk with Russians, as at this reception. That requires a whole different set of vocabulary, because while there are only a couple of ways to ask someone their name, there are lots of ways to say, “Nice to meet you.” And then there are a number of questions that can come after that, though adults often talk about their jobs and where they’re from. People really need to be able to understand the question words, and while those are supposedly easy, it’s amazing how many reps my students need of those (as well as how many variations there are in Russian). Someone a long time ago commented on this site that question words in real questions are very late acquired, and while I don’t want to believe it, I’m coming around. They’re on the wall, we ask them every day, and yet my students are still checking the posters all the time.

I am reminded that my plan (that I had lately abandoned) of doing a mini interview with every character in a story or topic (including music figures, cultural and historical figures) is critical. Students need to hear those questions over and over. If we have visitors, they’re going to want to know where they’re from, where they work, what they do in their spare time, and why they do what they do, or why they’ve come to Alaska or to the school. Background information is what connects us to others and what makes our stories real.

Authentic resources
So then today I was back in class, still trying to get our virtual move to Moscow off the ground. The kids are writing about their Alaskan lives, and they’re eventually going to write about their lives in school and families in Moscow. I found an infographic comparing how people in St. Petersburg and Moscow spend their free time, and I thought it was going to be easy to talk about it. But first, we had to talk about the students’ free time here, and create a graph of our class’ free time activities to be able to make it relevant. It took an entire period to talk about free time, just to lead up to that chart!

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2 responses to “Can they do it? and other thoughts

  1. It is so difficult to figure out what is meaningful and comprehensible sometimes. When I asked during my class last year, they wanted food and conversational things, but it didn’t drive their boat really. I know that not meeting much kept them from feeling they actually are getting anywhere. Though they were.

    Questions are important, but if you can’t understand the answers of a fluent speaker, then you are still at the question. That gives the fl speaker more teaching vocabulary opportunities to the non-fluent speaker. Eventually may we will all be understood.

    I hope the event was successful in that the Russians got to practice English and help in Russian but hear concerns about oil containment while the Alaskans expressed their concerns in English and got to practice some simple Russian and truly show their hearts for working together with their near neighbors.

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  2. It was successful! The beginners got to hear real Russian, and they recognized some words, and the more advanced ones got to try out their stuff on real people, not just on me who understands what they’re trying to say.

    The questions truly are important as you say, but even understanding them is difficult. I tell my beginners to try answering a question you think the person might have asked, even if it’s wrong. Then the Russian will make things more clear, or continue the conversation, if it’s right. I know from experience with my kids that if someone answers a question I didn’t ask, I assume they just didn’t hear it right, and I’ll speak more slowly or add more information. That happens in English as well as in Russian.

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