Learning a new language can be a very daunting task especially when you do not have much exposure to them. My experiences with learning a new language did not begin till high school, and I honestly was not very successful at learning the new language. Mostly because I was not truly motivated to learn another language and only took it out of necessity and once in the class I was intimidated by the teacher and the pace of the class. The motivation to learn another language changed when I became a parent of a child with a cleft palate which impacted his ability to speak. But understanding language acquisition truly became important to me when I started teaching dually identified special education students and English Language Learners in the general education classroom. I was not sure how to meet their needs in the classroom. These different experiences revolving around language learning and acquisition impacted my thoughts about how much being able to access language impacts our lives, but understanding how my own life experiences played a part in my thoughts is important.
My first exposure to learning another language began in ninth grade. I was a mediocre student at best but because I wanted to attend college it was mandatory to take a foreign language. At my school you choose between French and Spanish only. Understanding that Spanish would be a more useful language for me to learn assisted me in making my choice. Entering the class for the first time was nerve racking because I did not know what to expect and so I was already intimidated. Meeting my instructor for the first time did not help with my feelings of intimidation and unease. He was a former Army drill sergeant, and he made it very clear on day one that he had certain expectations of his students and of how his class would be paced. Looking back I can see the way my teacher gave instruction was not very effective at least not for me, and my lack of motivation and my underlying feelings of dread and frustration did not help in my learning process.
When Brown (2014) discussed the models of teaching that many teachers use and stated “explanations of grammar points, memorization of lists, and exercises in translation “ (p. 15) in the book it took me right back to the class I took. My teacher focused most of our classes on explaining grammar points and how they were different in English, memorization of words to be tested on, and translating sentences. But the pace of the class moved too fast for me. He expected us to pick up the new vocabulary and be able to translate it from Spanish to English and vice versa within a week. The next week he would introduce the new words and vocabulary, and expect us to be able to translate sentences again. I was a very slow learner and truly struggled in the class. I was not able to make a connection between myself and what I was learning. Because I was not being successful at learning the words and vocabulary, I struggled with translating sentences. This was very frustrating for me, and the teacher’s demeanor towards me did not help how I felt.
He could not understand how much I struggled because he had my siblings in the past and they were great students in his class. This led to my feelings of dread and continued frustration. This teacher and class brought me a feeling of dread that I never was able to shake, and so I feel this hugely impacted my ability to be successful in his class. I understand now that my not being motivated to learn the language also hindered my ability to be successful. I can only imagine if this is how I felt about learning a new language how students with limited exposure to languages in their own home or beginning to take classes in an American school makes the students feel. My feelings about learning a new language changed once I had a child.
Learning another language and being motivated to learn one changed once I became a parent. My son was born with a cleft palate that involved 50% of his upper palate. This deformity impacted his ability to eat but had an even bigger impact on his ability to speak. It not only impacted his expressive language but his receptive as well. He would get so frustrated because he was unable to communicate his needs. After discussing this frustration with his pediatrician and teacher, we all decided that teaching him some basic sign language would help ease the frustration he was having. We began with simple signs like more and done, and then got more elaborate as he got older until he was able to speak. Even after he began speaking he continued to struggle because he had teeth removed and this impacted his ability to make speech sounds. He was able to manipulate his tongue to create speech sounds that the majority of people used their front teeth for. He continues to struggle with manipulating his teeth and tongue to produce correct speech sounds so language learning has not been easy for him. This gave me a unique perspective of language learning and the challenges that some need to overcome. Some of these challenged I also see when working with dually identified students or English Language Learners in the general education setting.
As a Special Education teacher I work with many students who have learning disabilities in reading but also have a ESOL classification because English is not their native language or students enrolled in our building with very limited formal education or English exposure. The exposure to these students has given me a first hand look at what struggles learning a new language can have on a student and how it can impact them socially, emotionally, and behaviorally. Pre-teens strive for acceptance by their peers, and when you enter a school with limited English or education it can have significant impact on them socially because they struggle to interact with their peers and with staff. Emotionally these students can struggle with depression and anxiety because they want to be accepted in school while maintaining their native culture and language. As Freeman and Freeman stated (2011) “we understand that our students must negotiate between the world of their families and their native countries and their new world” (p. xiv). These students have to learn how to transition between their home life where they still may use their native language and traditions and school where they are using English and exposure to other customs and norms. Behaviorally these students can also struggle because they are frustrated or bored, and this can sometimes lead to disruptive behavior in the classroom. These experiences with dually identified students and English Language Learners has had a huge impact on how I see language learning.
My exposure to language learning has come from my own experiences in high school learning Spanish, to being a mom of a child with speech issues, and through my opportunities to work with dually identified special education students and English Language Learners. Being able to analyze each of these exposures to language learning has given me insight into how my students may feel as they are learning a new language. I can only hope that by analyzing these experiences and truly thinking about how they have impacted my own thoughts about learning language can benefit my students. Understanding how they may be feeling and being able to relate can only make me be a better educator and assist me in helping them be successful.
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