From the Other Side of the Classroom

The best way to understand what it’s like for your students to learn a foreign language is to learn one yourself. If you’re teaching your native language, showing your students that you have made an effort to learn their language and that you speak in spite of your errors also sets an excellent example. 
It’s been a long time since I struggled to learn Hebrew as a second language, so recently I began learning spoken Arabic.  We are fortunate to have a wonderful teacher who usually teaches children. Some of her methods are similar to mine, which allows me to see my lessons from the other side. 
Drilling – Reciting lists of words is boring and not very effective. Using words in sentences, or better yet in songs, is a much better way to learn and remember sentence structures. Unfortunately we don’t sing many songs but I do occasionally look for them on my own. Some students have asked for printed tables of verb forms. Personally I think that constantly referring to a list would make conversation difficult, and that it’s much easier to learn verbs and tenses in context.
Pronunciation – We aren’t learning the Arabic alphabet. The teacher writes words on the board in Hebrew letters, but when she says them they often sound completely different from they way I would read them. We need to hear the words to learn them properly. I’ve begun recording more of the lessons and writing fewer words. For the same reason, I discourage my students from writing English words using Hebrew letters, and provide younger students with CDs of the songs we learn so that they can listen and review what we’ve learned at home.
Willingness to Communicate – In a SHELTA drama course we discussed this topic as a critical point in learning any language. Speaking a new language requires confidence, determination and an awareness of the importance of speaking, even with errors. My students often refuse to speak English because they don’t know English, I remind them that they will never know English until they begin speaking. As a student, I try to speak as much Arabic as possible during class and make note of my mistakes. There are other students who have decided to just sit back and listen until they feel ready to speak. In both cases I can see how active learning is much more effective than passive learning.
Translation – Every language has unique syntax, sentence structures and expressions. Translating sentences word-for-word often results in sentences that at best are awkward and can even be embarrassing. I’ve been trying to explain this to my students for years as they try to understand English by translating each word into Hebrew and then putting them together, then translating their answers back to English the same way. Now I’m experiencing it from Hebrew to Arabic. I’ve tried to say sentences using words I know and was told that that’s not the way to express the idea in Arabic. She then rearranged the sentence so that it made sense. This is called Lexical, or whole-language, learning. At least I understand this concept and didn’t argue with her.
Comprehension – When our teacher speaks to us in Arabic, I listen for the words I recognize and pay attention to facial expressions and hand motions.  I’ve told my students for years that they can understand English even when they don’t understand every word, and now I’m discovering that it’s true. When students constantly ask “What does that word mean?” and then try to put everything together, they often miss the general idea.
After sitting in the student’s chair, I can honestly say that what I expect from them is not only possible, it’s the best way to learn.

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