Sunday, November 4, 2012

How my students must feel...

An advantage to teaching a foreign language while living in a foreign country is that I can experience first-hand what my students must feel like.  Are they wide-eyed and bewildered by the language that surrounds them?  Well, I certainly have had my fair share of times when people were speaking to me in Russian or Kazakh and I didn't understand.

What's hard is when students reach a certain level (called "Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills") where they can interact in a social setting, have basic conversations, yet they still don't quite understand.

It's harder still when they're beyond that, they can interact in a classroom setting, they can follow directions, they can read and write responses to what they've read, and yet... Their English isn't fully there.  But it's hard to realize that, and it's hard to have experiences to help you understand.

Years ago I studied French.  I went to Paris and took classes in French, I dated a French guy who didn't speak English, I got a Bachelor's degree in French.  I was never perfectly fluent, but I was close.  Then I spent over ten years not using it.  I can still read nearly fluently in French, but I have to work hard to keep up the rest (which I don't really do, being in Kazakhstan...)

I recently learned that the Catholic Church here has Mass in French sometimes, and I made friends with a French woman who text-messages me when she learns when the Mass will be.  So I have dragged Sophia several times to Mass in French.  (Poor child!)

Catholic Mass is a great place to practice a new language, because most of the Mass is a repetition week after week--the same prayers, just in different languages.  And of the parts that change weekly, most are set in stone, on a rotating 3-year schedule, and I have a missal--a master book with all the different parts for every Sunday of every year, in English.  So I can follow along in any language.  And I have downloaded and printed the Mass in French, and have a copy of the Mass in Russian.

The homily is the hardest part.  It's usually about 10 minutes long, and this part is unique to each Mass and to each priest.  The priests write their own homilies, often connecting the readings to their congregations.  You cannot download these from the internet or buy these in a book.

I remember that when I lived in Paris, it took most of the year for me to be able to understand the homilies (despite the fact that I had been studying French for quite some time at this point!)

This evening, as I was listening to the homily, it made me think of my students...  If I really concentrate, I can understand 90%, meaning I can get the gist as well as some details.  But if my attention strays for just a moment, it takes tremendous effort to get back on track and figure out what the priest is saying.  In the end, I understand, but I'm mentally exhausted, and I didn't get everything.

About half of my students are probably in English where I am in French.  They can do it, they can listen and pay attention, but they don't get everything, and it takes a lot of effort for them to get what they do.  And they're only 8 years old!

Sometimes I need an experience like this to help me reflect and realize just what school must be like for my students.  I think of how nice it would be if the priest would speak more slowly and use visuals.  (I do use visuals, but how often do I forget myself and speak too fast?)  And I am so proud of my students for how well they do, despite their obstacles!

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