It happens across the board. It is a pervasive notion that seems to have been adopted with little to no research. It is somehow implicit in most English-learning environments, explicit in many course outlines and used as an evaluative tool in measuring the efficacy of language instructors. I have actually been refused employment because of my “renegade” attitude towards this ill-researched tenet of TESL. However, it stands in complete opposition to evidence-based educational research in second-language acquisition; not to mention a panoply of related motivational issues.
We’ve all heard it, said it and even followed it. “Only speak English in my class!” I used to insist. “Hey, you guys in the back, no Spanish!” was another one. “Stop translating everything! Focus on English!” I used to believe, only to my students’ dismay of course.
By doing this, we inadvertently omit how the brain works from our teaching and learning strategies. Sure, they get more practice time, but is it meaningful to them? Does it help them make insightful connections to what they already know? Does it help them to truly understand the cultural idioms and exponents of English? Does it motivate them to learn and provide “eureka” moments? I think not.
Learning New Concepts
The most meaningful way to learn any new concept is to tie it into the existing brain schema, or “neural network”. My four-year-old daughter does this all the time:
“Papa, I said I wanted fruit, not cucumber!” she says.
“Cucumber is fruit,” I reply with a grin, knowing what’s coming next.
She giggles, “Cucumber is not a fruit, silly.”
“Yes it is,” I say.
“But it’s not sweet,” she counters.
“Right, but the seeds are on the inside and cucumbers grow on vines, just like grapes.”
After a bit of considering and “revising”, she finally says, “Fruits are not always sweet?”
“No,” I say, “fruits have seeds on the inside. Carrots don’t have seeds on the inside, so they are vegetables.”
And it’s done. Her concept of the word ‘fruit’ is forever changed.
In ESL, Students begin class with prior knowledge of linguistic concepts as defined by their native language. French-speaking students will often make errors when trying to say, “Je mange mon diner”, in English. The French tense is “présent simple”. Many students jump directly into the present simple and say “I eat my dinner”. Of course, this is erroneous on many levels. The present simple in French can be used to express an immediate present action. In English, it implies a habit. Without challenging students to reflect on their linguistic “definitions”, we might go through an entire course without ever correcting the conceptual error. By challenging them to equate ideas between their native language and English, we come one step closer to more deeply activating the mind and overhauling their perception. This leads to deep, life-long change in ability.
Increasing Motivation and Participation
Everyone likes to talk about themselves: their experience, culture, knowledge and beliefs. By including these in our instructional strategies, we elicit their attention, engender mutual respect and place the students’ experiences at the centre of the learning process. One of the best ways I have used in getting students to understand grammatical forms was to have them first detail all tenses in their native language in terms of conjugation and “use/meaning”. Thereafter, I have them “connect” their native language tense “meaning” to those of English. By doing so, the French-speaking student then clearly understands that “Je mange mon diner” is actually the present progressive in English, or “I am eating my lunch”. This simple strategy teaches them a critical notion that they cannot simply cut and paste French tenses onto English, and provides them with a more evaluative and effective learning strategy.
This is not to support the constant use of other languages, nor should students chat in their native languages during class time. Yes, they must speak English as much as possible. However, we should never eradicate their prior-knowledge from the learning process.
Have you used a plurilinguistic approach to enhance learning in your classes?