Teaching languages is about a lot of things. Helping students develop communication skills in the language they are studying is, of course, a top priority. Less obvious objectives include helping students appreciate language structure and words which often connote cultural and historical details. Language teachers also hope that their students develop skills and confidence in public speaking. But a fundamental purpose of language teaching has to do with inspiring a better understanding of a diversity of people. The more we can help teach our students to observe, reflect, understand, and subsequently, judge less, the better.
So, how does this relate to Middle School academics? Well, students often start to learn another language at this time. Despite the fact that it is optimal to begin learning a language when your vocal cords are forming, Middle School is a good age to tap into a 13-year-old’s curiosity and questioning about the greater world and her place in it.
In my French and Spanish classes, we start off by talking about where the language is spoken. When I remind students that most French is spoken outside of France and most Spanish is spoken outside of Spain, they start to think about where and why. We look at maps and Google Earth and learn the names and locations of many countries, many of which are unknown to some students. Then we start to talk about why the languages are spoken in those places and the history behind language migration.
Students often work on their speaking skills by talking about imaginary trips. Short of actually going to a place, they learn about it and express this in a spoken presentation based on a script accompanied by pictures. They include “something they learned” and “something that is unique” about the culture of the country. Sometimes students use the green screen or other apps to film or record themselves speaking in front of a real background of the place they are visiting.
My 8th grade students also engage in written communication with students from Paris and have done the same with students in Nicaragua and the Mexican students who attend Dana Hall. Making connections with each other typically leads to learning what they have in common and disrupts assumptions, but also teaches them about what is different about their daily lives and perspectives.
By teaching students about the value of experiencing the world, they not only open their suitcase, but also their mind. “Look more, scorn less” is a good way to approach any place where the cultural norms may be (or seem) very different from what you know. It is this mindset — one of curiosity, respect, and an urge to know more — that I try to develop in my students.
Learning another language makes us realize that we are part of one humanity that includes intriguing differences. Our job is to pique students’ interest so that they may then genuinely examine, and maybe even feel awe struck by aspects of cultures outside of their personal experiences and unique lenses.