Absorbing The Content

Absorbing The Content

Do you remember the game called Hungry Hippo? There is a circle of hippopotamuses (hippos) trying to eat as many pieces of food as possible. In fact, the goal of the game is to eat more pieces of food than any of the other players. The player who eats the most food wins the game.

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Borrowing that analogy for language-learning classrooms, it can be said that the similarities are quite numerous. The teacher places huge quantities of food in the middle of the playing board for all of the students to have access to. And as soon as class begins, the students start trying to consume as much content as possible. And so-called “good” students will do their best to consume more content than any of the other students. But there is no time to absorb these large amounts of information. Instead, students is just expected to memorize, memorize, memorize.

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They are not given the opportunity to dissect the information and experiment with it in different scenarios. They usually do not learn the differences between using a grammar point correctly and using it naturally. They are not allowed to spend time with the material long enough to compare the meaning in their native language to the meaning in the foreign language that they are working in. Language is a living and breathing entity. It is an art form. And there are nuances in language that are better felt than explained. If you do not believe me, then think about the 6-year old who somehow knows to say “we are” as opposed to “we is.” He feels the difference even though he cannot explain the rules of subject-verb agreement.

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And so, because language students are not allotted sufficient time with their course materials, the result is that the majority of students develop a way of speaking a foreign language in a way that it is perhaps best be described as “broken.” We use words like Spanglish (Spanish-English) and Chinglish (Chinese-English) for language skills that can be recognized as both native and foreign in nature. And this is the status quo. The bar is set low. We embrace the notion that it is impossible for a non-native language speaker, above a certain age, to speak a foreign language well. And a student who has spent 8-10 years studying a language is labelled as fluent by other non-native speakers, while native speakers find the student’s abilities sufficient, at best, but usually unnatural and quite frequently unclear.

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We need to understand that learning is cyclical. There are times when students are learning, learning, learning. And there are times when students are reviewing, reviewing, reviewing. And then there are times when students are consolidating, consolidating, consolidating. Why am I repeating each word three times? Well, it’s because learning is a process. And the educational system does not seem to acknowledge or appreciate this fact.

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Even children who are learning their own native languages are given the opportunity to repeat information dozens of times before it is absorbed into their sponge-like brains.

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So, why are foreign-language students expected to cram such large quantities of information into their brains each week? And why aren’t students being given the opportunity to spend more time with these large quantities of information so that they can digest it and make some sense of it?

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I do not enjoy sounding like a broken record, but I feel compelled to again say that memorizing is not the same as learning. And if we are going to begin to produce students who can communicate naturally in their foreign language(s), we need to put more emphasis on quality and not quantity. Students are not animals feasting in the wild. Students need time to absorb, digest, and dissect the information that they are learning – that is, if they are expected to use their foreign languages naturally.

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My opinion is that the status quo needs to change. We should expect language students to speak foreign languages well, regardless of their age when beginning their studies. And we should grant students sufficient time to spend with their materials so that they are able to become more intimate with the lessons. Lastly, we need to stop treating language classrooms like feeding centers where students are expected to absorb content in pretty much the same manner, regardless of their native languages. A Chinese, Japanese, and Korean students will not learn English as well as Spanish, French, and Italian speakers. Latin-based languages resemble each other in many ways, making it easier for students with that background to learn certain parts of English much easier.

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We need to learn how to teach foreign languages better. We need to learn how to pay attention to what the students need.  We need to respect the language-learning process. Until we address these issues, the best that we can expect from language instruction that resembles a hungry hippo feeding frenzy is nothing more than broken, confusing, and sub-par language skills. There has to be a solution to these issues, and I plan to continue experimenting with my own language learning processes until I find something that works better.

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