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Maybe it’s me…

Knowing when a student is really getting the language is not always as cut and dried as one may think…

book-1626072_640This morning while walking my dog, I realized that I’ve been guilty of not taking first language colloquialisms into account. I can’t do that with every language, simply because I don’t have knowledge of EVERY language my students speak.

But when the primary language is heavily influenced by French, I should be able to parse that out. And I didn’t.

I’ve been getting rather annoyed at a student who keeps saying “Me no like.” I’ve corrected her time and time again. “Me” is not a pronoun used as a subject. It’s the same in French. And, likely, in her native Lingala. Of that, I am not sure.

But I warned her that she would end up staying in my class forever if she couldn’t get that piece figured out. We can’t all go around talking like Tarzan. That certainly would not be the pathway to academic language I’m supposed to be setting her on.

I have no idea why my mind floated to this this at at 6 a.m. while walking my dog. (By the way: “The French do not speak of something “out of the blue”… they speak of something “that has nothing to do with sauerkraut” (Ca n’a rien à voir avec la choucroute).“) But I realized that French speakers have this quirky way of emphasising the speaker in a sentence by putting the object pronoun at the beginning of the sentence: Moi, je n’ai jamais parlé français. (I’ve never really spoken French, myself.)

Now I’m thinking about what a language geek I am while I’m simultaneously berating myself for not recognizing this speech pattern earlier.

So why is this little bit of language geekiness important right now? Because I just realized I am potentially shutting a student down by sternly telling her she can’t use this particular language construction in English when all she’s doing is trying to make a point.

Here I was, thinking this child just had no capacity to remember anything, and actually, the student is just translating and leaving a few things out. And that’s what we all do, particularly when we don’t think the other party is going to understand.

I had coffee with my friend Mary the other day, and we were both commiserating about how people don’t know how to talk to our students. I have people all the time–teachers, administrators, other students–have “conversations” with my students that are totally one-sided. They think that because they hear a few memorized phrases sometimes that the student speaks “enough to understand.” But really, there’s no there there. Words are said that have no meaning to the person who is on the receiving end.

For me recently, this happened when a colleague wanted to immediately debrief with a student about an altercation with another boy in the hallway. I told him he couldn’t have the conversation without a multilingual liaison because the student wouldn’t understand. My colleague pushed back: “I’ve had conversations with him,” my colleague said. “He gets me.” Yeah. No, he doesn’t. Not everything. And you certainly can’t have a meaningful conversation about disciplinary issues, or academic issues, for that matter, without someone there to make it crystal clear what you are trying to say.

It’s not fair to the student (particularly when you are talking consequences within a disciplinary discussion). And it’s aggravating for the speaker when it’s assumed that somebody “gets it,” and then later they do the same thing and get in bigger trouble for it because “we’ve talked about this before.”

For Mary, it was a well-meaning janitor who was telling her students why they couldn’t hit the window because it would break and hurt somebody. Mary walked up and said, placing her hand on the window: “Window–hit–no.” (Then shaking her head vigorously.)

For really low level students, sometimes just the essential words are essential.

It’s all about knowing your audience.

And now I’m guilt of not knowing my audience. I didn’t use the knowledge I have about a language to realize why Tarzan speak was coming out of my student’s mouth.

Live and learn, I guess.

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