Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

“I’m handsome, I’m very very handsome”–making language learning fun!

Below is a partial transcript from an interview I had with a parent whose fourth grade child attends the only elementary school in our community where Spanish is part of the daily curriculum. “D2” is her second daughter.  “D1” is a middle school student who also has Spanish as a subject and said with certainty that her little sister “speaks Spanish better than I do!”

MOM – I don’t know what they’re doing, but they got this certain website that she goes to and listens to the- she can tell you all about it. She runs around the house singing Spanish songs all the time.

MISHA – [to the fourth grade youth] And how did you learn all the Spanish that you know?

D2 – from Spanish class

MISHA – But how do you, what helps  you to learn?

D2 – We go to a website called Señor Wooly

MISHA – Wooly? Ok, I don’t know that. What do you learn there?

D2 – There’s Spanish videos and you can do karaoke and you can listen to the video and sing along.

MISHA – And you like to do it?

D2 – (nods yes)

MISHA – That is so cool. I’m so happy for you. Now next year they’re trying to decide if we’re going to have any more Spanish here at the school or not. Would you recommend that we keep Spanish at the school?

D2 – (nods yes)

MISHA – You would? Why?

D2 – because it’s fun!

Ah, that’s the ticket! If language educators (like the one at this elementary school) can make learning non-English languages fun and inviting, then maybe we can have more success encouraging future American youth (and adults) to enjoy Spanish, French, Chinese, or Arabic class.  I did look up “Señor Wooly” and there are a few free videos on youtube to give you a taste of the way to make learning languages fun, funny, and do-able through music,repetition, and comedy.  Check out “Puedo Ir al Baño,” a ballad sung by an adolescent pleading with his strict teacher for permission “to go to the bathroom,” backed up by a chorus of understanding peers.  Or for even heartier laughter check out “Soy Guapo,” a pop tune sung by a dandy of a dude who claims repeatedly, “I’m handsome” cheered by two women (“¡Ay, Victor!”).  This “Guapo” gets out of household chores, bills, even reading. By being handsome he gets all his desires met.  It’s over the top fun and while singing along to this guy not needing to be funny or have any personality, the song helps teach dozens of vocabulary words, expressions, and challenging grammar points (¿personalidad?–¡él no la tiene!/ personality? He doesn’t have it!–no more struggles with teaching the direct object with the verb tener!).

It’s not that all target language learning is fun and games.  However, when I review the overwhelming variation of “Spanish Level One” books that exist, the market is flooded with dry vocabulary lists.  Señor Wooly is indeed a sight for sore eyes & ears, utilizing technology to embrace context and interaction as essential components of effective language acquisition.

When my husband turned 40, we placed candles in a circle around the golf ball design on the cake.  My two year old daughter cried, “like ashes ashes, we all fall down!” connecting the candle circle to one of her favorite song activities in her daycare class.  Young and old, language learners make connections between what is known and what is unknown.  Our natural creativity makes leaps and bounds between experiences.  My children have been working with a Spanish speaking nanny for 4 weeks now (about two days a week).  I encourage her to do the following:

1. interact with the children in a natural setting doing regular, daily routines–in my case, going through morning rituals of getting dressed, eating, and readying for the drive to school.

2. try to introduce contextualized language–when asking the kids to put on their zapatos and calcetines, to show them their shoes and socks when saying the words

3. to encourage repeated production just as I do in English when trying to teach good manners.  “I want more yogurt!” my son screamed this morning.  “Más yogurt, por favor,” I rephrased for him.  “Más yogurt, por favor,” my son repeated, mumbling obediency.

4. to accept all English productions

When we were in North Carolina, my daughter waved her hands in the air and shouted “These are manos Mommy!”  Then she counted out the pasta she would eat on her plate “uno, dos, tres, cuatro!”  These are small steps for small language learners.  But I can’t wait to show them “puedo ir al baño!”  to see if this can appeal even to very young children.

This is not to say that language learning is all fun and games.  It’s not.  Real frustrations occur all the time. My son standing at the sink told his Spanish teacher today that “I don’t understand Spanish!” and then proceeded to follow her request in Spanish to go outside and play.  Language learning is not always to be taken lightly, especially when real needs have to be met.  I remember having spent the entire summer in Mexico feeling quite fluent.  I was leading a group of college students on a long term stay in the Mexican state of Veracruz and had finished my work to head home.  My flight was delayed for several hours and finally cancelled.  I had to navigate getting on a different flight, making connections to my home destination.  I was tired and frustrated and embarrassed at the airline ticket counter when I simply gave up speaking Spanish.  I knew the Delta employees were also bilingual and they would be in their language comfort zone to explain my flight options to me in English.  Such code-switching is not always possible when operating in an L2 but it made me aware what a luxury it was to be able to draw on more than one code choice in order to be heard, to get needs met, and occasionally have fun.

I was delighted to hear this young girl feeling so excited about her Spanish class.  I was even more startled yesterday when I visited a dual immersion elementary school in Clayton County, “Unidos.”  The fifth grade chorus treated my UGA students and I to a short bilingual concert where it was difficult to tell which students had Spanish at home and which did not.  The children’s accents and fluency were so outstanding!

“What has your experience been in this program? Is it ever hard to learn another language?”

“Yeah! At first I was so confused!”

“Yeah, like I didn’t know what was going on!”

“But now it’s easy and its fun to speak two languages.  Like we have this new girl in our class and she speaks Spanish but we’re helping her in English.”

“When we go to restaurants, the people there are all like “You speak Spanish! Well, alright!”

There’s a whole story written by Dell Perry Giles about the challenges of opening up an elementary school where two languages are used for instruction.  But she made it happen.  To watch these children sing effortlessly in two languages was a gift.  They are showing us by their songs as well as on their state mandated test scores (which equal or surpass the scores of their district peers) that learning more than one language in the context of a public U.S. school is indeed possible and enjoyable.

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