3 Magic Moments in Language Learning (and why ESL teachers need to learn languages too)

Like most ESL teachers, I love learning languages just as much as I love teaching my mother tongue. Most of my colleagues are similar: I haven’t met too many monolingual ESL teachers.

Spanish has been my most recent language learning pursuit. I have a little background in the language from four years of high school and a semester in college, but I’m not fluent by any means. So for the past few months, I’ve been teaching myself. It’s been challenging and fun.

But it’s also given me the chance to go through the language learning experience again, the same experience all my students are going through. In this article, I’ll describe three specific language learning moments, and what they taught me to remember as a language teacher.

The “Schema to the Rescue” Moment

I’m a soccer nut, so I’m subscribed to the LigaMX YouTube page. Over the summer, they were posting clips of interviews from players in the youth tournaments that were going on. I decided to watch one to practice listening to some Spanish. I assumed the interviews would be some easy input.

I was wrong. At least initially. The players were young, so they weren’t used to being in front of a camera and mumbled and spoke quickly and quietly. I could only pick out a few words in the first few sentences.

But they interviewed an American player and I figured out what questions the interviewer was asking. From then on, I had a schema map. I knew the players were going to be answering questions about what they thought of the tournament, how they thought their team played, and who they want to say thanks to.

As a teacher, I always try to use some kind of schema activation activity before a listening or reading. At the beginning of the video, I was completely disoriented because of the difficulty I had with hearing the player. But if I had only thought for a moment before about what questions they’re probably answering (especially because sports interview questions are so predictable), I probably would have had more confidence and understood more.

The “I Need Subtitles!” Moment

Another YouTube channel I love is Easy Languages. I initially stumbled across the channel while trying to practice German, but then saw an Easy Spanish video in the recommended videos. I was excited because the Easy German videos were great comprehensible input for me: easy enough to understand most of it, but with some new words and concepts thrown in.

But when I clicked on the recommended Easy Spanish video, the wind was taken out of my sails. I felt like I wasn’t understanding anything. It was so fast and had so many new words that I was completely lost. And, unlike the soccer interviews, there was no schema I could grab onto.

I initially tried watching with the subtitles covered up because I have a bad habit of looking at them even if I can understand what I’m hearing. But after struggling with the video for a few minutes, I eventually gave in. Then, looking at the subtitles, I realized that there were actually a lot of words that I did understand, but they were just spoken very quickly. With the subtitles I could also see the new names and ideas she was talking about (barroco cusqueño, arte virreinal).

When I watched again with the subtitles covered, it all sounded much more comprehensible to me. I could pick the words out of the speech stream and they almost all made sense.

When I use in-class listenings, I never use subtitles in my students’ L1. It’s impossible anyway since there are several L1s in my classes. However, when I ask my students to do listening logs for homework, I might encourage them to use the same strategy I did: challenge themselves to watch the video in English without subtitles, but use them if it’s too difficult.

The “Vocab-in-Context Lightbulb” Moment

To practice my reading, I found a Spanish copy of The Alchemist (El Alquimista) at my local library. I’ve read the book in English before, so it has been perfect comprehensible input. There are still a lot of words that I need to translate, but because I know the content already, I can figure out what’s going on even if I’m missing out on a lot of the vocabulary.

In one part of the book, the main character is speaking with a Muslim crystal vendor who is explaining the five obligations described in the Koran (Corán). Here’s the dialogue (emphasis mine, explained later):

El Profeta nos dio el Corán, y nos dejó solamente cinco obligaciones para qua las cumpliéramos en nuestra existencia. La ma’s importante es la siguente: sólo existe un Dios. Las otras son: rezar cinco veces al diá, ayunar en el mes de Ramadán, hacer caridad a los pobres.

I italicized the words that I didn’t know in Spanish before, but could figure out because familiar to the English versions. The words in bold (rezar, ayundar, caridad) are ones that I would not be able to give a translation for if someone asked me “What is rezar in English?”

But within the context of the passage, I was able to make the connections and fill in the holes to figure out the meanings of those unknown words:

  • rezar cinco veces al diá = pray five times a day
  • ayunar en el mes de Ramadán = fast in the month of Ramadan
  • hacer caridad a los pobres = be charitable (literally do charity) to the poor

The second vocabulary word caused another lightbulb moment for me. The word desayuno (breakfast) is one of the first vocabulary words I learned in Spanish, but after learning ayunar, I understood the pieces:

  • des– = de-
  • ayuno = fast

De-fast? Oh… like breakfast!

I felt smart and was proud of myself for making that connection. More importantly, it encouraged me to find ways to make my students feel like they’re smart and proud of themselves too.

Make sure you give your students passages that are at the right level for them and contain information that they have background knowledge in, and they’ll be able to learn tons of new vocabulary words in an authentic and lasting way. And they’ll feel great doing it.

Feel the Joy, Feel the Pain

It’s important for language teachers to know what their students are going through. That includes the positives as well as the negatives. Language learning is hard, and it’s easy to say that, but it’s another thing to experience it firsthand.

But it’s also fun. And that should be experienced as well.

Thanks for reading.




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