How Learning a New Language Is Helping Me Connect With My Students

Voices | English Language Learning

How Learning a New Language Is Helping Me Connect With My Students

By Donna M. Neary     Apr 21, 2023

How Learning a New Language Is Helping Me Connect With My Students

As a newcomer specialist, I teach students who have been in the United States for less than a year. There are at least four languages spoken by the students I currently teach, so people are often surprised to learn that I’m monolingual. I spend a lot of time thinking about how monolingual teachers can support multilingual students and I am actively searching for ways to reduce the isolation my students experience as they begin learning English, and to build a sense of belonging for students in my classes.

While I use a number of effective instructional strategies, relying on Google translate, word-to-word dictionaries and visual aids to support instruction, I’ve long felt a disconnect with my students because I've never personally experienced what it feels like to be a language learner with such high stakes. Recently, along with a number of monolingual colleagues in similar positions, I decided to do something about it.

Nearly 4,500 students are eligible to receive direct language support services this year in Hamilton County Schools, the district where I teach in Chattanooga, Tennessee. To support English learners, the district hired new English New Language (ENL) teachers for schools that previously had not needed them and placed additional ENL teachers at several schools that require a larger ENL team to support their student population.

Approximately 82 percent of English language learners in our district speak Spanish as their primary language, and a fact that is often overlooked is that only around 68 percent of these students were born in the U.S. In my school specifically, a large number of students have migrated from Guatemala, and in addition to Spanish, many also speak one of the 25 indigenous languages spoken there including Mam, Chuj, Q'anjob'al and Akatek. Other students have migrated from Mexico or Honduras, with a few from other countries in Africa or Asia.

As our district increased the number of ENL programs, I, along with other monolingual teachers and administrators across the district, began asking for Spanish language lessons to better connect with our students. Our district leaders listened and decided to offer a course called “Spanish for Educators 101.” In February, along with 14 other monolingual teachers from my district, I enrolled. My colleagues and I hoped to improve communication with our students and support their academic development by better understanding a language they are expert in. It turns out that in addition to building my vocabulary and learning more phrases in Spanish, my vulnerability in learning a new language is creating common ground with my students.

Simply Sharing the News Brought About Change

When I announced to my students that I would be learning Spanish, the room erupted into cheers. It became evident to me that my students cared quite a lot about my decision and they were invested in my success.

One student, Angel, clapped his hands together on hearing the news. He flashed a big smile and said, “I am surprised at you Miss, you will speak Spanish! How many words do you know?” The whole class waited as I began to list the words I knew in Spanish.

Walking around the room, I pointed at an object and said, with rising intonation in my voice, “mesa, lapis, papel, …?” As I moved around the room, a fantastic and unexpected thing happened. My students shifted to English as I uttered words in Spanish. Angel asked, “OK, Miss, but what is it in English? What are you saying?” Others pointed to objects, calling each by name in English to see if I knew what it was called in Spanish. When I faltered, they taught me the Spanish words I did not know. Angel, speaking on behalf of the class, offered robust encouragement: “You can do it Miss!”

Another student, Maria, who emigrated from Guatemala less than a year ago, had a more subtle reaction. Maria’s first language is Q'anjob'al and she speaks Spanish as well. During previous lessons, she watched me intently, and conferred in Spanish with a friend over assignments. She seemed wary of my big voice and propensity to use significant hand gestures. To my disappointment, we never quite developed the connection I had with most of her classmates. Her friend, David, would always speak to me on her behalf if she needed something and when she spoke in class, she was barely audible.

As we sat together working on a lesson soon after my announcement, I realized how meaningful my taking Spanish lessons was to Maria. She made deep eye contact with me, and I sensed a connection I had not felt before. As we worked together, I tried using Spanish words and she gently corrected me, but ensured I got it right by repeating it clearly, and praising me. She giggled at pronunciations that fell short, but with understanding and kindness, each time showing me how to spell it and say it in Spanish.

After that day, things changed. Maria started greeting me in English when she arrived at class and I greeted her in Spanish. She has become less dependent on her friend David. We regularly make eye contact and she often raises her hand asking me to check her work or offer support. This shift made me feel hopeful, and I realized that being honest with my students about how learning a new language made me feel nervous, offered Maria and her classmates a sense of validation.

Becoming a Language Learner

So what was it like to be a language learner? I felt vulnerable and dependent on my classmates, and was glad I was not going it alone.

As an abbreviated course, we met for 10 classes — each two hours long — over a period of six weeks. It was designed especially for educators to build a basic understanding of communication in Spanish, and to increase awareness of the importance of language to culture. The class gathered in interactive online sessions that packed in basic conversational skills that we could use with students and families. The class wasn’t intended to help us become fluent in six weeks. Instead, it was rooted in our collective goal to be able to connect with our students and families, and in the end, it is working.

Our district partnered with the Tennessee Language Center at the University of Tennessee to offer the course, which was taught by an instructor working remotely from Nashville. Our teacher used similar methods to what many of us use with our students, teaching for acquisition of terms, phrases, greetings and other basic language but designed for adult learners. Importantly, she was kind and forgiving and supportive in a way I hope to be with my students, providing frequent reminders that everyone learns at their own pace.

With each class, I absorbed more, and it was exciting to try out the new words and phrases I learned with my own students. But I also experienced what it felt like to not know an answer — or worse — to not understand the question. I found I would often freeze when called on in class and my brain would sometimes go blank. A few times, I thought of the response in French, a language I studied decades earlier. It took a concerted effort for me to use only Spanish and not move into English when asking a question or uttering a reply to the teacher’s query. I failed regularly, and retreated to English out of discomfort and frustration. I also experienced the bravery it takes to test a new word and stumble on pronunciation in front of our peers firsthand.

We completed several projects to support our language development and focused on specific topics each week including greetings, adjectives, words of encouragement as well as directions and locations in a school. As our classes progressed, I felt the discomfort of the cup filling up too quickly as I struggled to remember phrases and terminology from previous lessons, while layering on with new ones. My empathy and awareness expanded as I imagined my students feeling this way every day, and persevering as they continue to build background knowledge and acquire more English.

How This Experience Is Shaping My Practice

My Spanish course ended in late March, after six intense weeks of classes. Honestly, I was a bit relieved when it ended, and it gave me a sense of how tough it is for students to persist over an entire academic year. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on how I’ll use my experience to change my practice.

These Spanish lessons helped me grow my vocabulary, which allows me to connect single words I may have already known into more complex statements. One shift I’ve made is to use more Spanish when asking students questions and giving directions. I’ve also been using Spanish — in addition to English — to greet students. Thanks to the lessons, my greetings are less stilted and formal, which has made it possible to build deeper relationships with my students.

The experience also enhanced my patience and empathy, causing me to reframe how I respond when students express apprehension and anxiety. I readily acknowledge that learning a language is difficult and often confusing, and now, I’m able to draw from my own experience, offering anecdotes about how I sometimes freeze when asked to communicate in Spanish. It has been helpful for my students to realize that I also experience trepidation, but I persist — just like they do — when language barriers impact communication.

One particularly rewarding outcome is that my students have expressed that they regard my learning Spanish as a sign of respect and it shows them that I value the language they speak. Of course it will take concerted study and practice to reach fluency in Spanish. Thankfully, our district is planning to offer a second course that will build upon the first one.

Along with Spanish language acquisition, I believe that those of us who took the class are fostering more meaningful relationships with students and families. We are building increased awareness and understanding of students' identities and community through language. And our students and families can see, and now hear, the value we are placing on their rich language heritage.

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