Where’s the beet?

As the judging coordinator of our state spoken Russian language competition, I search high and low for judges. They are all volunteers, and they typically have to take a day off work. This week, I got a very telling refusal from a former (native Russian-speaking) judge.

First of all, she wanted us to stop choosing judges who feel that they must be strict with students or who feel strongly about grammar. She said that if a kid tells her “Me lives in Anchorage,” she can understand it just as well as “I live in Anchorage.” The point is to communicate. She gets letters from her Russian niece, who works in Moscow. The niece “makes five mistakes in a word with only four letters,” but her aunt is glad to get the letters. Communication is more important than correctness.

Secondly, she said she just couldn’t keep judging a contest in which some of the kids come to tell her memorized bits about their houses or lessons, things that they would never say in real life, phrases it isn’t even clear that the speakers themselves understand. Again, the point is to communicate, not to show off the ability to regurgitate.

I’m sorry that we have some kids showing up in that position. I have been embarrassed by my policy, which is to put kids in charge of learning the bits that are interesting to them, but since I agree with this former judge, I feel a little better. I haven’t handed out information for them to memorize. Instead, we use CI to talk about the topics they will address at the competition, and I leave it to their brains to be able to come up with the information when they get there.

I don’t like contests. I don’t like the idea of language competition. Luckily, in this case, the kids are operating against a rubric, not against one another. If they all are judged to get gold medals, they will all receive gold medals, and if they all get honorable mention or nothing, that’s what they’ll get.

I do like the fact that students get to find out whether they can communicate ideas in the language they’re studying. I like the fact that they meet kids from all over the state, and find out that they’re not so alone in this effort. And I love the fact that they mostly get celebrated for their achievements.  As a lot of work goes into this day of competing and cultural sessions, I’m focusing on what’s good.

The former judge said that we need to bring in judges who are people who know just how hard it is to learn another language. And the students should be learning to communicate what they’ll really need when they’re talking with Russians: how to start a conversation and initiate introductions, how to say what movies and music they like, and how to invite someone to come with them to the movie or to dance, and maybe what you need to wear for the activity. Later, they’ll need to tell stories about their day. Knowing something about the other culture shows you to be an educated person, but being able to discuss the rooms in your house with a complete stranger is not required.

Sound like what we accomplish in CI lessons?

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