Letter to my Novice Language Learners: I understand, and I feel for you. Don’t give up.

Becky Searls
Spanish Teacher, Upper Arlington School District

Wow. Today I remembered what it’s like to walk a mile in your shoes. I’m writing from Otavalo, Ecuador, in South America, where I started Kichwa language lessons this week. Kichwa is a language spoken by indigenous (native) people here in the Andes mountains of Ecuador. In a couple of weeks, I’ll start all over again in the country next door, Peru, studying a similar, yet completely different language, spoken by the indigenous people there, called Quechua.

Almost immediately, during our first lesson, I was reminded of just how challenging it is to learn another language. Our first lesson was packed full of sounds I had no experience forming and expressions I just knew I would never be able to tell apart (or so I told myself). After an hour of practice, I had a cloudy sense of a couple of the phrases we used, but also knew that I wouldn’t be able to put them together if the teacher called on me, in front of my friends, to try to model a first-time greeting conversation, for example.
All of this made me realize a couple of (very important) things for my own teaching; things that I need to do or that you need from me as your teacher. Things I want you to hold me accountable for. If and when I forget them, please remind me!

Some big realizations I had today, when I put myself in your place and remembered what it was like to be a brand-new language learner, included:
• I need to slow waaaaay down and speak waaaay more clearly.
• I need to repeat words and phrases much more frequently. I need to repeat myself so many times that I feel it is way too much repetition, and then I need to repeat myself some more, because you need that input.
• I need to stop, often, to see if you have any questions.
• I need to write words on the board so you can see them. (especially complex words, meaning anything longer than 1–2 syllable(s).
• Bonus points if I can provide a visual that gives a clear and helpful hint to the meaning.
• I need to give you a lot of safe chances to practice and repeat the new words and phrases, one word/phrase/expression at a time, before slowwwwwly building up to more complex structures, like practicing a question with an answer, or, eventually stringing together a couple of questions and answers to form a short dialogue.
• I need to give you opportunities to practice saying new words/phrases/expressions on your own, with a partner, and in front of an audience.
• Sometimes, I need to let you volunteer because you don’t feel ready to put yourself out there yet, while other times I need to call on you, on the spot, to show you that you can do more than you think you can, and it’s 1) okay to use your notes and 2) okay to get it wrong. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. And while it may not be comfortable, the social pressure of performing in front of your friends will help you try harder.

I want you to know that I understand how you feel. I understand the sensation that the teacher is literally not speaking a language at all but just making up sounds to mess with you.
Don’t give up; keep going; you can do this.
I understand what it feels like to have no idea what the teacher just said, let alone how to write it down or what it means. I understand the frustration of wanting to get it right and be correct right away, or maybe not try at all for fear of messing up and making a fool of yourself in front of your friends, and I feel for you.
Don’t give up; keep going; you can do this.

Try to remember that when you first start to learn a new language, nothing sounds familiar or distinct. It’s difficult to tell where one word ends and another word begins. Sounds mix together and you worry about things like your spelling, word order, and getting it right. This is all completely normal, and you are not alone if you feel anxious or nervous.
The secret to know is that you’re actually doing it right if you feel uncomfortable! Growth happens at the intersection of discomfort and novelty (trying new things). So, studying another language is a formula for growth!
Doing something completely new (learning new words, phrases, ways of communicating, culture) + feeling uncertain and outside of your comfort zone. = Growth!
Congratulations, you’re doing it right!!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized, Winter 2018. Bookmark the permalink.

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