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?

Intensive language course for language learners?

“Go cafeteria?” he points to himself.

I look at him and the clock.  The class just came from lunch, two minutes ago.  “What do you need in the cafeteria?”

His response is unintelligible.  “Do you need food?”  He nods affirmatively.  So I figure because of the language barrier he somehow missed lunch.  I let him go.

A few minutes later he returns with the school nurse who then asks the class, “Has anyone seen Josue’s coat?  He says he left it in the cafeteria” 

With this level of language skills it feels like a waste of time for Josue to even be in science class.  He has no idea what is going on.  He doesn’t understand instructions.  He doesn’t understand the tasks.  He is just following the crowd.  He Google translates every printed word I give him.  I've had EAL training.  I have a skill set to help language learners, however, even this need is beyond my current abilities.  He has a good attitude.  He’s trying.  By the end of science class, which is towards the end of the day, his eyes gloss over.  He’s exhausted. 

It seems it would be best for these brand new language learners to just take intensive language instruction for a few weeks before entering the classroom.  Then, they would be so much better equipped to cope and more able to begin learning in their new language.

12th and 6th grade alike?

They’re between the ages of 16 and 18.  They are IB Year 2 Biology students.  They are applying for college and looking forward to being on their own next year.  They can think critically and debate.  They can grasp high level content.  They challenge ideas.  They are aware of global issues. 

Then, within in minutes of their departure, the “little” ones walk in.  They are energetic.  They laugh spontaneously at the silliest things.  They can’t find their notebook.  They don’t have a pencil.  They pull out a crinkled, torn lab paper from the bottom of the backpack.  They are filled with wonder and thrill in discovery.

I teach 12th and 6th grade students.  On the one hand they are so different but on the other hand I am amazed at the similarities.  The most surprising discovery for me is how much my 12th graders enjoy activities that years ago I considered “beneath them”.   Last year, after a special training course on teaching English language learners, I trialed some hands-on learning activities on my seniors. Truthfully, I thought these activities would only work on my middle school students.   I mean, what 17-year old is going to want work out biological pathways through handling laminated images?  Well, I was wrong.  They LOVE it.  So, I’ve incorporated these “best practice” activities such as sequencing of sentences to form a paragraph on genetic mutations or matching laminated vocabulary words on evolution with their corresponding definitions.  Whenever I present such an activity, my older students become excited and eagerly move into position to participate.  Like the 6th graders, they learn well when they are hands on with the content.

Both grades are unique.  Both grades love learning, especially when they are engaged.  Both grades are a joy to teach.  So yes, they are alike!