Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Just Do It!

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

As the saying of disputed origin goes, we remember only 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, and 90% of what we do and say.

I don’t know how accurate that really is. Nonetheless, every version of this adage shows that retention peaks with the modalities that involve our greatest participation- movement and speech.

Can we learn a language as passive observers? I remember a discussion in a teacher training class about Krashen and the Input Hypothesis. We wondered if a person could learn a second language if that person never spoke a single word of the language, never wrote, never produced any output at all, but got rich input at just the right i + 1 level. Would it be possible to acquire a second language?

Or do we have to be active participants? Do we have to involve movement and speech for efficient language learning? My personal second language learning experiences reflect the saying at the beginning of this post. What has stuck with me over time is the language that I did and said – not the language that I read in a book as I tried to self-study, nor the language I heard a teacher say in class.

Years ago, I took a Spanish class where the instructor basically lectured to us in English and smattered in some Spanish words. We followed along in the text book and listened. It was normal to pass an entire hour without the chance to utter a word in Spanish. Not only was I bored to tears, but even in the immediate weeks after, I had ZERO retention of anything from that class.

My French class, on the other hand, became my model of good language teaching and proved to me the power of doing. The instructor loaded the class with cultural activities that we learned about and participated in while speaking French. I learned how to play roulette on a mini-roulette wheel in the classroom- in French. Along the way, I learned some colors, numbers, and a rich vocabulary like “No more bets!” I participated in fencing classes- in French. I learned body parts and movements (in addition to vocabulary for blade types and protective gear!) We went to French restaurants and prepared French food. We discussed pictures in French fashion magazines and tasted wine, as we learned adjectives from “ridiculous” (some fashion) to “smooth” (some wine). (It was night school…. it was the 80s……at least we didn’t mix the alcohol with the gambling!)

Back then, I had no urgent need to learn French. Yet, twenty years later, I remember the vast majority of what I learned in that class. In contrast, a few years after the French class, I had a lot of motivation and a real need to learn Spanish. From that class, I remember nada. Almost.

Thankfully, it is the memory of that happy, Gallic experience that guides my classroom teaching and prompts me to infuse all my classes with doing. We might not be playing 21 and sipping Manhattans, but doing is also standing up and shaking hands in a lively role play, or asking a student to lead a class activity from the front of the room. Doing is when a student teaches others origami or leads the class in a jumping, stomping Lebanese dance.

Engaged, focused students who no longer watch the clock. What more could a teacher want? The proof is in the doing.

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