Updated: Sep 25, 2019
What was it that drew you to your profession as a World Language teacher? Did you get excited at the thought of learning a new verb tense? Did syntax give you tingles? Were you intrigued by the use of accents or different characters? Well, since many of us are legitimate language nerds, that might actually be true, but I'm willing to bet that what caught your attention initially about your target language had more to do with the target culture than linguistics. So how can language teachers get our students just as excited about the language as we are despite the fact that many of them may not have the means or opportunity for authentic exposure to the target culture(s)? Well, we're already doing great things...exposing them to notable Hispanics during Hispanic Heritage Month, learning how to play petanque in French club and dispelling myths about Cinco de Mayo. But I'd argue that one of our greatest assets as language teachers is our own cultural experiences and they have the potential to change a student's perception and even their lives.
At 18 I worked at a country club where many of my coworkers were Mexican and I wanted so badly to understand their "secret language" but it wasn't until I was invited to a Mexican dance that I actually fell in love with the culture and was even more motivated to learn the language. I remember feeling like an entire world had been opened. "Y'all got your own dances?!" I asked completely fascinated by the idea. And when my friend's dad bet me $20 that I wouldn't sing with the band I hesitantly took the risk and sang the only song that I'd ever heard in Spanish....you guessed it...La Bamba. Funny, right? Well, even funnier might be that after that dare of a song, the band asked me to be their lead singer and for two years I sang rancheras, cumbias, quebraditas and baladas understanding very little of what I was singing!
Fast forward 6 years and I'm in Spain working in my Master's in Spanish Language and Culture. Fast forward 2 years more and I'm living in Chile doing a Fulbright teacher exchange. 7 more years and I'm living in South Korea trying to communicate with a local tailor to have her hem my pants and after what felt like an eternity struggling to express ourselves in her very limited English and my very limited Korean, she asked me, in Korean, where I was from and I answered "Miguk" which means American. She took a shot in the dark and said, "¿Hablas español?" WHAT??!?!?! Mind blown!
What do these story have to do with language learning and my students? Sharing stories like my Mexican band story and my Spanish speaking Korean tailor have a bigger impact on students than I ever realized. Having taught for twenty years now (OUCH), I've had a chance to see how these stories have changed my students. Here's what they're learning:
Be a risk taker. As we know, being a risk-taker is one of the most important qualities a language learner can have. Language learners are so vulnerable and often feel like everything they're saying is wrong and that they sound completely stupid, but a risk-taker does it anyway...and ultimately sees more success. Your own stories of how you've taken risks along with your most embarrassing language learning stories can serve as encouragement for your students.
Be open to the possibilities. I tell my students that I never had an interest in Asian culture or language but, when offered a position in South Korea, I decided to have an open mind and give it a try. What's the worst that can happen, right? My life has taken a completely different direction than I ever could have imagined and I'm so grateful for that.
Learning language opens professional doors. I grew up on food stamps. I was a young single mom who took advantage of subsidized housing and food stamps to get through college. Becoming a teacher was one career path where my language skills have lead to jobs all over the world, but I'm sure to share with my students how friends in various careers have been contracted or promoted because of their ability to communicate with a wider audience.
Learning any language opens the door for travel. And not just any travel. Not the kind of travel where you get off the plane, get in a shuttle and ride to a resort that you never leave. No. The real eye-opening, life-changing travel that makes us better people. I share the many stories of how I had a much more authentic experience because I spoke Spanish fluently, but I also share how my ability to pick up on contextual cues and express myself with gestures made me the go-to translator in my friend group when visiting China.
Think about your priorities. When I share stories of how I've traveled to over 50 countries students inevitably ask, "How did you have the money to travel so much?" and sometimes, depending on which school I'm teaching in that might be followed by "Were you a stripper?" "Did you sell drugs?" or the more tame "Sra. had a side hustle!" First, let's briefly address how it's inappropriate to talk about your teacher being a stripper or a drug dealer and then move on to what's important. I prioritize travel. I prioritize experiences over things. I subscribe to Scott's Cheap Flights to get notifications of super cheap flights. I stay in hostels. I take public transportation. I plan my own vacations and travel with friends and family who are equally adventurous. I don't spend a lot of money on designer bags. I don't need a huge house or the most expensive car. A round trip flight to Europe cost me about the same money as the newest pair of Jordans. Think about what's important to you. I can actually see the wheels turning, especially in my lower income students' heads, when I talk about how I make travel affordable.
Don't underestimate the power that your own travel stories have. I've found that, even when teaching the most apathetic unengaged learners, stories of travel get kids engaged. All kids. I'm not saying you'll change all of their lives, but I am saying that you shouldn't be surprised when the most resistant student in your class starts asking questions about how you were able to do all this travel and how did that Korean tailor speak Spanish? This might be the only time these students get involved in the classroom conversation. And it may even be a little frustrating to you that the conversation is happening in English (or a language other than the target language) and the student goes back to being unengaged when that travel conversation is over, but trust me, these stories do change lives.
A solo weekend trip to la Havana, Cuba. I NEVER would have dreamed of taking a trip by myself years ago, but one trip after another seeing how I could handle any situation that arose gave me the confidence to do a solo trip. It was AMAZING!
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