I’ve visited many language programs across the country in recent years, and have—for better or for worse—instinctively divided them into two categories. The first are programs that leave me with the distinct impression that they are fundamentally classes that happen in a room in a school building—there’s not a lot of dynamism, authentic or experiential learning, and rarely a connection to something outside the textbook.
The second kind is far more rare, but it represents the programs that keep me engaged and invested in the language education field. These are programs where the classroom is a mere microcosm of the wider world, a jumping off point into a rich, diverse, and exciting set of experiences, interactions, and insights. In these programs, students feel a constant connection to the world around them, recognize the connections between their own lives and what is happening in school, and have a sense that the teaching and learning that they and the entire school community are engaged in matter deeply for their futures.
In a recent conversation with a Japanese language educator, she shared with me the thought that “we never really thought enough about sustainability” when Japanese programs were growing strong in the 1980s and 1990s. As interest in Chinese language programs explodes across the United States, there is no more important factor to consider in developing a successful program. The reality is that it’s very easy to have a Chinese language program in 2012, just as it was very easy to have a Japanese language program in 1988 or 1990. If you want to understand why this is important to you, just read the headlines. It’s a lot more difficult to have a Japanese program in 2012, but there are still many of them out there thriving. Paradoxically, I often see the relative decline of interest in Japanese programs to be a blessing. The field has benefited from a kind of Social Darwinism that has made the weakest, lowest quality programs unsustainable – and given the strongest, highest quality programs the chance to flourish and continue.
After all, if Japan is no longer in the headlines, how how does one sustain a Japanese language program? The answer is simple to state, but terribly difficult to achieve: build a program that motivates and engages students, connects with the wider school community, and brings a kind of infectious enthusiasm for the language and culture that is palpable and authentic. The other key element, I think, is that you make the learning broadly applicable—that is, you instill the students with a sense that this is not just about Japanese or Chinese—not just about grammar and vocabulary and how many characters you “know,” but about learning a set of important skills that can be applied to the learning of other languages and, indeed, beyond language learning.
Any psychologist will tell you that one of the most important aspects of learning is pattern recognition. Language learning—and in particular Chinese language learning—is a wonderful way to build students’ capacities to recognize, interpret, and analyze patterns. This skill is one that the best language learners utilize intuitively, but that I don’t often see teachers using in the classroom. I often remark that I hear math, science, and history teachers telling their students that they need to develop the skills of a “mathematician,” “scientist,” or “historian,” but I have never heard a language teacher telling students that they should learn how to think like a “linguist.”
I discovered how motivating and exciting this idea of “student as linguist” could be almost by accident. When I started teaching the Chinese and Japanese languages back in 2005, I decided that I had to develop a better way of introducing Chinese characters than rote memorization, the way I had learned them. I tried to think about what was most important and concluded that it wasn’t learning specific characters or character components (usually called “radicals,” a term borrowed from chemistry), but about understanding the structure—the patterns—of Chinese characters. I wound up creating a set of hundreds of flashcards with Chinese characters on one side and their English meanings on the other. I had the students work in groups with the first task (like a puzzle) to find all the characters on the cards that shared a similar component—the same radical, for example, in 吃, 喝, 听, and 吹. The students would eventually wind up with about 20 or 25 different piles of cards on their tables. They then had to read the English meanings of the characters on the cards in each pile to try and make an educated guess about the meaning of the radical. So for the characters above, they would see “eat,” “drink,” “listen,” and “blow,” and likely conclude that this had something to do with the “mouth” (口).
One colleague at the time told me that this might be kind of a boring exercise, but I found, to the contrary, that students were incredibly engaged and motivated by the task. They loved the idea that they were going to discover these patterns on their own and turn the tables on the teacher—they were going to tell me what the structures and patterns were, rather than vice versa. I took this one step further and brought Chinese newspapers into class during the first week of school and had students analyze the shapes and patterns of characters. Of course, they didn’t understand any of it, but they began to develop the skills of pattern recognition and the ability to think inductively about language—to create their own interpretations and meaning that would allow them to grow as learners.
After that experience, I began using a lot more authentic materials in class, even at the very beginner levels. I found that it was actually incredibly motivating to students to be applying these higher order cognitive skills of pattern recognition even at the most elementary stages of language learning. I began more and more to give students movie clips, magazine articles, signs, songs, and audio files to analyze and decipher, with which we investigated word order, the use of particles, and countless types of sentence structures.
I discovered that this approach resulted in three key outcomes: (1) students saw the connection between what we were learning in class and the “real" world; (2) students became more confident in their ability to master difficult or unfamiliar language; and (3) students were beginning to think like linguists and to develop cognitive skills that they could apply beyond the Chinese or Japanese language classroom. I’d like to think that if those students today are faced with the task of learning of Russian, having spent a few years learning Chinese won’t have been an impediment. Rather, it will have built a solid foundation for efficient and effective language learning that will make learning Russian a lot easier, not to mention a lot more interesting and fun.