I had a ten-hour family connection class this weekend. Last night I couldn’t hear over the constant buzz of all the Spanish speakers in the room. I was confused because when our instructor would ask a table to report their responses to a question, the answers were way off the topic. She was very good at picking something out of what they said to make it answer her question, but I was beginning to wonder why they were so off-course.
Today I sat with a table of ladies from the Dominican Republic who offer child care in their homes. When I explained that I love listening to their Spanish, they slowed their speech and started helping me with my language. But when the first slide came up, the lady next to me asked me what sssch meant. I had to ask her to repeat four times. It turned out that she meant, “such,” from the sentence, “David’s father is such a helicopter dad.” Oh boy. I told her it was that the dad in the case was “muy” helicopter. That didn’t help. I added “bastante.” Still not much help. We looked it up. Tal. By then, the slide show was much farther along and we had missed whatever the point of that slide had been.
It became clear to me that many of the Spanish speakers had been compensating for a lack of comprehension by copying other groups and talking whenever the instructor turned discussions over to us. They hadn’t understood what the instructor was asking them to discuss, but they tried to use at least a couple of the words they’d heard. And when she went on to present content, like how to avoid cultural conflicts with families, or when she gave examples from her own experience, they were completely lost. I started explaining to my table. They would listen to me, then rephrase what I said in better Spanish, and then we would discuss the concept (“discuss” might be a little strong for what I was doing).
The class became a wonderful challenge for me. I was fascinated to learn how American best practices look from another cultural standpoint. But I was also struck by the idea that the instructor is giving these presentations to people who probably aren’t getting what the presenting organization expects. They simply don’t have enough English to understand more than sentence-level, and they don’t have the frequent comprehensible input that they need to be able to progress. At this moment, I don’t have any answers, but I sure understand the problem better!
It was so easy for me: the presentation was on a topic I know well, in my first language, and the Spanish vocabulary was what I could either already use or guess at. But for my classmates, the topic was new, the written language was new (they had a hard time figuring out even which page we were on, since the numbers were all out of order and they were mostly text), and they sometimes had to work to make sense of what I was saying. They didn’t even try to fill in the final sheet in their handouts: goal area, specific goal, and steps to the goal. The graphic organizer helped me pull together what we had covered, but my group were still defining pasos a una meta as the class was dismissed.
Now I can see even more why it makes sense to talk with students in CI language classes about topics that fit the context, and to play with those topics in ways that the students lead. When we tell a story, review it, enlarge on it a bit, review again, and move forward with the whole class, students are with us, acquiring at their level. When we are not student-directed, students lose focus easily because discussion no longer fits their context.
Jason Fritze has said to include either new information or new structures in a class, but not both. He was talking about cultural information, but his advice works to explain why student-led language acquisition is so effective.