Language Mayhem: One of the challenges at international schools

Today a new student started high school.  

He speaks no English. And I mean NO English.  No matter what I say or gesticulate, he just nods his head.  Not even “yes” or “no” at this point.  The instructions I received for today were to not “make” him speak and “just let him follow along”.

My students are in the middle of a lab that they started on Friday.  I feel desperate to give this new student some idea of what we are doing so I resort to Google Translate.  I formulate a series of simple sentences that I hope will translate reasonably well.  Of course, he only nods his head in response but it’s something, right?  He watches as the other students perform the lab.  His eyes are bloodshot.  He rubs his eyes, his face, trying to appear somewhat focused.  He’s clearly exhausted.  I know how tiring it can be to spend the entire day surrounded by a foreign language and that is even when I understand most of what is being said!  He has to pick up everything through visual clues.

Despite its shortcomings, Google Translate is one of my favorite sites these days.  I’ve used it this year for students speaking French, Dutch, Portuguese, Turkish, and Japanese.  It allows us to communicate.  I ran one of the sentences I used today through a series of English to Japanese to Dutch to Hindi to Malay and back to English just to see what I got back. I figured if it was remotely close to my original phrase then my initial translation probably made sense to the new student.   I chose the languages represented by the student population in this particular class.  “We are doing a lab right now” transformed to “Now we have a laboratory” – that’s pretty good, right?  

I am incredibly impressed by the resilience of these students who arrive with no language skills. While a few shut down and refuse to move forward, thrusting themselves and those around them into a negative spiral of frustration, others tackle the challenge with vigor, engaging themselves and attempting to speak with the most rudimentary set of words and phrases.  It is incredible to watch them grow and develop becoming fluent and fully participatory both socially and academically.  I hope this new student falls into the latter category.

This relates to a previous post of mine pondering the value of providing an intensive language course for new students who are English language learners.  A friend responded on fb to my post suggesting some ideas, including tapping into the volunteer organization at the school or perhaps offering Saturday sessions for language learners.  She added, “you need a network, you can’t do it alone”.  It’s true, for the successful language learners I see they do have a network including themselves, their parents, their ESL teachers, their peers, and their classroom teachers. Oh, and Google Translate.

Does anyone have an experience of their own to share or a story of someone they know who successfully acquired a language in a short period of time?  What are the ingredients to success?