Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Advice on Teaching Variations of a Language

Advice on Teaching Variations of a Language 

Dr. Victoria Gilbert, Chair of the Foreign Languages Department, Saint David's School, New York

I think one of the beauties of being a language teacher is that you get to introduce students to the flexibility of thinking that comes when learning another language. Humanity is rich with expression!

For the little ones, to keep it simple, just introduce one dialect (per person) at a time. Children are much more flexible than we imagine as long as we give them a heads up on or an identity to associate with the code switch. If teachers are worried that their “version” of Spanish/French/Arabic/Chinese, etc. is not clear to students, you could rely on a flag sign that indicates the English you use (I am assuming here a US flag) on one side and the Spanish flag of whatever nation your accent and dialect is from (luckily, we have 21 varieties!!) on the other side. This way, there is not just “one” that is the correct one. It is best to stick to one for each teacher whom the little ones encounter for the sake of consistency. You don’t need to make it any more explicit than that to them when you say “cerdito” and the first grade teacher says “marranito.” They will adjust to it, first as a quirk of that teacher, then become aware that certain words follow certain flags, countries, etc.   For 2nd or 3rd graders, it would be fun to keep a “word” wall (or for the traveling teacher a folding map) with countries and flags and an index card with words that correspond to other words across borders. Students could investigate the varieties of these words within their own communities.

Depending on where you learned to speak, you should take that dialect as your default since it contains the words most likely to come to mind. European and American romance languages have a standard that you could consider teaching as the academic register at school---meaning you could find those words in the dictionary ( or in the Microsoft word review of languages under the editing tool. This way, other native speakers would understand a future business/personal exchange using that language. While I am not familiar with other countries, I know that English was never standardized linguistically the way that Spanish and French were –hence our crazy multiple spellings for the same sounds!

Older students are used to being “bicultural-bilingual” all the time. For example, there are words/expressions that they use with their friends that they wouldn’t use around parents and teachers. Given this, as lifetime language learners, we should ask ourselves, why should objects/things/ideas only have one label? It is important to remember that the “label” you use may very well be an original version of the word or it may have mutated in culturally grounded way. One of the advantages of starting a second language at the same time the first one is still developing is that the knowledge becomes encoded by the brain as “just another label” for that thing, rather than a specific linguistic track. This flexibility is part of what early language programs aim to provide for their students.

 Welcome to the wonderful world of being a language teacher!

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