How to innovate the languages classroom

Brian Powers

Brian Powers is a language fanatic, writer and former TESOL administrator from Ithaca, New York. He is the creator and administrator of Languages Around the Globe, a blog and language learning community dedicated to spreading cultural awareness through multilingualism. Brian holds a degree in cultural anthropology from Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

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Originally published on 6th May 2015. Originally published on 6th May 2015.

In the not-so-distant past I found myself sitting sleepily in 9th grade Spanish class; my head on my hand, staring out the window wishing for a fire drill, a tornado or perhaps the zombie apocalypse - though a quick glance around the room might have confirmed that the latter had already come to pass.

I didn't hate Spanish, and I didn't hate my teacher. I wasn't even a poor student. However; after my two years of high school Spanish I was done. I got my grade, I went home for the summer, promptly forgot everything, and worse; I didn't care.


Today, as a language fanatic and wannabe linguist, and having spent some time teaching English myself, I look back on what went wrong with those Spanish classes and why, in the end, I and countless other students took away almost nothing.


I think the most important thing a language teacher can do for their students, regardless of age, is to impress upon them a sense of value. Kids need to understand why they're being made to study something, as well as how it will make a difference in their lives and in their communities.


I was never given a choice when it came to languages. We had to take two years of Spanish and nobody ever explained why. Nobody was given the sense that what we were doing made a difference to anyone or anything and as a result nobody felt an especially pressing need to do more than go through the motions, get the grade and go home empty handed.


But you can't simply explain something to a 14 year-old and expect them to spontaneously self-motivate, can you? Language classes need to be fun and engaging, something that can sometimes be easier said than done - especially if you're teaching within the straitjacket of a regional or national curriculum.


So what can you do?


Do your homework


The generation gaps that usually separate teachers from their students can cause us old folks to lose touch with the things that are important to young people. Language is a reflection of the culture that speaks it. A lot of teens today don't care about work, or business, or many of the mundane topics so frequently covered by basic language courses. They care about social media, about cool bands, about parties and video games - and there's no reason you can't base a lesson plan around items that will interest your students while still incorporating the essential grammar and other mandatory material.


It just takes a bit of creativity and extra time getting to know the things that interest your students.


Use social media


Teachers should have a social media presence, if not to connect with their students than to connect with one another. Facebook and Pinterest in particular stand out in my mind as two of the greatest resources a language teacher has at their disposal today.


Facebook:

  • Allows you to create pages or groups for your students to connect with you and each other outside the classroom.
  • Network with other teachers with great strategies or advice for teaching foreign languages to students of any age.
  • Create your own pages to help others - both teachers and students - become more engaged with the subject material.


Pinterest:

  • Thousands upon thousands of teaching strategies, games and other activities for a foreign language classroom. 
  • Incredibly simple to find images - particularly infographics - that you can use in the classroom both as reading material or simply decoration.
  • Extremely high rate of sharing means your own images or articles can be spread rapidly and effectively to a highly targeted audience of other teachers.


Leveraging social media is a great way to keep your students thinking about their language outside of school - the real place languages go to die.


Get rid of the foreign names


When I was in Spanish class, all students were required to choose a Spanish name that they would use in the classroom. Nobody liked it and I believe that it was actually more of a hindrance to successful learning than it was an aid.


Don’t be afraid of informalities


Further emphasising my first point; consider venturing into the grey areas of slang and highly informal conversation. This is what students really want to be learning: the naughty stuff. With a little work and a bit of caution, you can give them what they want without going over the top.


I realise that informal language and slang are probably not part of the required content you need your students to know, but you do need your students speaking to one another outside of the classroom, and one of the best ways to do that is to teach them how to speak to one another in a more authentic manner.


You don't need to get too vulgar or obscene. It's a fine line to tread as a teacher, but if they're going to be talking to each other this informally, they might as well learn how to express their teenage angst in their second language!


Diversify your teaching toolkit


The ever increasing emphasis on independent language study among adults has brought about a tidal wave of products, software, mobile apps and websites - some good and some terrible.


There's nothing wrong with incorporating some of these programs or tools into your lessons. Some products such as the ever amazing website and mobile app Memrise offer you the ability to create your own vocabulary courses custom tailored to your classroom's needs. Memrise also comes with teacher toolkits that allow you to analyse your students' progress and struggles and even add an element of competition.


It, along with other free tools like Duolingo are fun, effective and can be used outside the classroom on any device - computer or mobile - with an Internet connection.


If you're going to assign homework, this is one great way to do it.


Use language exchange


If someone comes to me and asks me what the best way to learn a language independently is, I'm going to tell them a language exchange with a native speaker - hands down. Without real feedback from a real person it's infinitely harder to gauge real progress or feel a serious sense of accomplishment - another element I feel is essential to maintaining interest in a target language.


There's no reason that you can't use a language exchange system in your classroom, either! Assuming your class has access to computers or tablets and a reliable Internet connection, you may be able to network with another school in another country - perhaps a class of students studying English - via Skype.


Give your students the opportunity to alternate between learning their second language and helping their foreign partners with their English. Not only is this the best kind of real-world application but it also helps to instill multiculturalism in a generation that may not be getting enough exposure to a world outside their own.


Conclusion


If I could go back in time and recreate my high school language learning experience, or better yet teach the class myself, this is what I'd change.


Language learning isn't about what the teacher wants, or what the government wants; it's about what the learner wants. An unmotivated student really will take nothing away, so as an educator it becomes your responsibility to ensure that this does not happen.


A modern foreign languages classroom needs to embrace modernity. There's a reason many adult learners and world renowned polyglots reject formal classroom style language studies - many of the methods currently used are outdated and out of touch.

What methods have you employed in the MFL classroom? Let us know in the comments.

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