New Language Immersion Experience

I was inspired by Rachael Cayley’s excellent plenary at the Consortium on Graduate Communication’s Summer Institute last year to post more about successful lessons on my blog. So here goes … My annual summer gig for the last 8 years has been to teach a Second Language Acquisition course for Delaware K-12 teachers. Our state has seen a dramatic increase in the number of English learners, who now account for almost 9% of total public school enrollment. However, we have a critical shortage of certified ESL teachers, which we have tried to address in part through the University of Delaware’s Additional Certification in ESL program, which I created and coordinate. Our strategy is to train as many existing teachers as possible in the theory and methods of ESL teaching so that they can not only support ELs directly but also disseminate their expertise in their schools.

Which brings me to last Monday and the first day of the 2019 course in Dover.*

(*Well, it was “last Monday” when I saved a draft of this post in July, 2019 …!)

Teachers travel from all three (count ’em, three!) counties of the state for this six-day intensive course — I know Delaware is small, but attending the course is still an enormous commitment of time and energy, and I work very hard to make every activity useful. I start with a trick I learned … somewhere … of immersing the teachers in a language they don’t speak. In my case, that means dusting off my rusty German. For the first 20 minutes or so, I speak entirely in German, leading the teachers through a beginners lesson in which they learn to say their name, describe their hobbies, and say a few colors. They engage in partner work, a Kagan strategy called “Quiz, Quiz, Trade” (Quiz, Quiz, Wechsel!), and watch a bizarre children’s video that is supposed to demonstrate the risks of using incomprehensible videos in the language classroom!

Participants often tell me that this one of the most meaningful activities in the course. When we debrief, they describe their feelings as stressed, overwhelmed, and mentally exhausted after just a short time operating in a new language. Of course, the purpose of the experience is to give them a glimpse into the challenges that English learners face every day in their classrooms. While none of the teachers who takes my course lacks empathy, they often tell me that hadn’t fully appreciated the intensity, concentration, and sheer effort that their ELs must feel.

During the debriefing this year, one of the teachers asked me “what’s that word you kept saying that sounds like so?” I thought for a moment. “Do you mean also?” “Yes, what does it mean?” “Well, nothing, really — it’s just a discourse marker, like OK, so, let’s move on.” “Oh, I thought it must be important because you used it so often!”

I find it really interesting that we all have verbal tics like this — words and phrases we use almost unconsciously to structure our speech and fill empty spaces. For one of my high-school German teachers, it was tja! For another, naja! For me I guess it’s also! But this episode really got me thinking about how hard it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, the important content from the fillers. Over time, I’m sure my “German class” would have quickly figured out what I was saying, but we took away from the discussion some important discoveries: frequency and repetition in speech don’t necessarily indicate salience; and the language we use around the target language — the language of classroom management and task directions — is just as important for learners.

I’m curious whether anyone else has used a similar language immersion experience, and if so, what do you do?

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor of ESL and materials developer in Delaware, in the United States.

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