My journey started almost 10 years ago. As a School Psychologist in California, it was expected that I would test native Spanish speakers and determine that there were handicapped and exclude them from the high stakes testing. I found that most of these students were not handicapped but needed more opportunity to practice in their second language. I decided to go to a Spanish speaking country and learn Spanish.
What I learned startled me. It was difficult for me. I have never had difficulty learning anything. It was frustrating for me. I realized something that made me re-evaluate how we educate second language learners. I was a mature adult and I was being taught with grammar lessons which would be appropriate for a 7-11 year old native speaker. My learning style, personality, motivation for learning a second language, developmental age and preferred modality were all ignored as I was presented with this cookie cutter approach. Any difficulties with learning the language was attributed to my age over 40 and lack of motivation “laziness” I also witnessed a nationalism. Mexico had lived in the shadow of the United States for a long time. Here was an opportunity to “get back” at Americans for the perceived injustices in the domination of English and the necessity to acquire English in order to access opportunities.
I decided to make second language acquisition as the focus of a Post Doctorate Neuropsychology program. I received a lot of interest and offers of financial support. Everyone wanted to know why some people came to the United States and acquired the language quicker than others. I can answer that now, practice. It is not lack of intelligence, motivation, will power etc. It is simply lack of practice. The more you practice a language, the more proficient you will be. There are many reasons why some people practice more than others. Different groups have different experiences with the English language.
I became fairly fluent in Spanish. I still had difficulty with slang. But then I have difficulty with slang in English and I don’t use slang much. I have to tell you that I taught myself Spanish. I dropped out of Spanish schools more times than I care to count. I hate grammar lessons in English and they are no more appealing in Spanish. I studied my language books, practiced my computer programs on my laptop. Read books magazines in Spanish, watched TV and movies but most of all communicated with Spanish speakers on topics of interest to me.
I noticed something fairly interesting. Most of my experiences with native Spanish speakers were pleasant. I did find some native speakers who were angry with Americans and openly hostile. I found that I tended to shut down in confrontational situations. I couldn’t remember words and I didn’t want to talk to angry hostile people in a language that was not my native language. I also noticed that I remembered language which was relevant to me. I loved words and reading and spent a great deal of time reading words and speaking.
I realized that many native Spanish speakers did not have a pleasant time learning English in my country. They were often ridiculed for their accent or approached with outright hostility. Spanish did not have the reverence of French or German. Native Spanish speakers felt the slight. I decided that this issue was much more complex than I had previously appreciated.
I presented a proposal for my Neuropsychology program to study how the brain acquires a second language using my own brain, a woman over 40 as a single case study. I wanted to study all aspects of learning a language. I was proposing to acquire 5 languages in less than 3 years. I was told that no one was interested in how anyone learned any language other than English and so I needed to narrow my study to why some people came to the U.S.A. and were too lazy to acquire the language. Not exactly unbiased language spoken by a respected Professor and Researcher.
I decided to take on the project without the Post Doctorate Program. I taught myself the language in the U.S.A. using movies, books, tv, computer programs, and taped recordings. I would go to the country that the language was spoken and then practice the language until I reached moderate proficiency. It generally took me about 4 weeks to be able to move around freely in my target language and in my target language. I found that if I combined my language study with volunteer work, I tended to remember information more quickly. I acquired 5 languages in 2 ½ years, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian. I found that it was difficult to maintain a language that I did not use. When I made friends who spoke the language and communicated with them once I returned home, I tended to retain the language. I did not retain Italian and German, I had no relationships with anyone who spoke those languages.
It’s been 5 years since I have tried to acquire a new language. I have turned 50. If I listened to the experts, I would not attempt any African or Asian languages. But then I never take orders from anyone. I am at the airport now going to Kenya. I probably won’t become very proficient at Kiswahili on this trip because I have not practiced enough before I departed my country. I have not focused on the language. But I will practice and I will become proficient enough to conduct an educational project in East Africa. So I welcome you to join me on this safari ( Kiswahili for journey or trip) and walk along with me as I expand my mind once again. It will be fun, It will be frustrating. Kwaheri
Every Educator should strive to learn something totally new. We all need to engage in an activity which forces us to have a beginners mind. We forget how difficult learning can be for our students because we are relying on information that we learned a long time ago and practice every day. It heightens our sensitivity, but more importantly if forces us to think about how we learn and develop instructional strategies to meet those learning needs. I look forward to sharing this safari with you.