How Does it Feel to Not Understand?

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10 thoughts on “How Does it Feel to Not Understand?”

  1. This is so timely. We were talking this morning to the director at the university where we study. He’s a total immersion guy with rules in place against L1 in the classroom. His position is that the establish meaning step is “just a shortcut” and that posting the translation “does not involve student thinking”. Curiously, I’ve never encountered these particular arguments against. Any suggestions on how to deal with this gent?

    Luckily he has agreed to allow me to demo some CI skills in an English class. I’m hoping the skills demo will change his mind. What else can I do?

    1. No, he’s an idiot.

      His assumption is that the point of learning a language is to think about it, which in turn “sharpens the mind” or some BS. Over here in reality the point is to think IN that language about things of greater value instead of just what some words might mean. Predicting what something means in another language might be the single most time wasting activity I can think of during acquisition. Such a skill isn’t useful until much later.

      1. I agree wholeheartedly that any pro-immersion educator is lying to themselves. Immersion is overwhelming and unnecessary. That said, I disagree with some of what you said about metacognition. We don’t think in a language; we think in metalanguage. This is an important distinction because more complex, abstract ideas don’t automatically transfer from L1 to L2, which is problematic in a second language (verses a foreign language) classroom. Outside of a super-easy TPRS classroom, students in an immersion program at a university are left fend for themselves against an onslaught of incomprehensible input. Second language educators have to prepare students for the very real question they will inevitably face: “What do I do when I don’t understand?” Foreign language students don’t ever have to ask this because you go slow and stay in bounds (ideally).

        Second language teachers use metacognitive strategies to help students make the most of a bad (immersion program) situation and overcome feelings of learned helplessness. They need to be able to deal with the incomprehensible language they will encounter outside of your super-comprehensible classroom in the “real world” around campus and eventually in their core academic classes. Obviously, this is not ideal. In a perfect world, it’s TPRS 24-7 until you got conversational language down. But that’s where immersion programs fail for beginning language learners. (I teach in an immersion program in an “English-only” state, so I should know: they suck.)

        You mentioned predicting in particular, and that’s actually one of the first things I teach my ELLs to do. Predicting is a metacognitive strategy that can be useful, but I disagree that it’s not useful until later. Predicting evokes schema recall, which deepens the connection between what new language you hear and what you already know, so you an actually remember the language.
        As always, any speech or text is only valuable if it is presented in a comprehensible way, so asking students to draw or say what they think will happen next in a book has to be paired with i+1 or you’ve lost them. My kids feel empowered when they know they can look at the title of the text or speaker’s powerpoint, pictures, consider the context, etc) and guess what they think someone will write or speak about. To be clear, this only accounts for a small amount of my instructional time anyways.

        My advice for Steve is to tell this Immersion Advocate that using TPRS can complement and not necessarily compete with the instruction of metacognitive strategies. You can teach both. I could go on and on about how, but this is already pretty long-winded.

        1. Oops. Ignore everything I just said. I just read below that Steve is in Columbia. Steve’s university director is arguing for a “fauxmmersion” foreign language classroom, not the second language (true immersion) setting I assumed when writing the above.

          I teach real kids who really struggle with incomprehensible English in their academic classrooms, just victims of circumstances. Here, this director goes out of his way to create “immersion” (that’s not what that word means) or rather artificial, oppressively challenging environments not conducive to language learning. Who the hell does this? Why? For the glory of saying my program is more “rigorous”?

          Steve, please punch this man in the face. (Don’t actually, you’ll go to jail. But lie and say you did and I’ll feel better.)

    2. I think Lance is likely right – that the man may not have an open-enough mind to take in what happens when you teach, especially only seeing a bit of demo. I am an idealist who likes to hold out the possibility that anyone & anything could change, though. Perhaps it’ll be the start of something. I would prepare some follow-up options so if he’s interested in knowing more, he can do that on his own. (Ex: videos from CI classrooms, blogs explaining rationale for CI?) Showing your students’ results may also speak more than seeing your approach at first.

      I would aim to be gracious, seek to build some trust and respect, and think of it as an opportunity to show you’re a professional with your own valid reasons for teaching as you do.

  2. OK, OK, I wonder if a solution is to use a demo language that forces this guy to need English. He’s super linguistic and will infer meaning from many languages. That’s why you write a word from an artificial language in some weird alphabet on the board and then ask the dude to “think about” its meaning. Whatever he guesses…WHATEVER it is, just give that artificial word a different meaning so this guy is “wrong” every time, but then continue with questions and build a story like usual. Afterwards, ask how useful it was for you to withhold the English.

    You could also ask a story with a host of false cognates in a brain-twisting manner. Don’t establish meaning and make him feel uncomfortable.

    I am not sure he has any reason to believe your demo is better than his criticism. Hats why I think you need to target his criticism. Maybe both.

    1. yea nothing helps people see that withholding English is unhelpful like a frustrating experience.

      I’m currently trying to learn enough Spanish to translate for an exam for my doctoral program and one book I’m using is a kind of immersion type book where it uses pictures, etc. to make things comprehensible (the author thanks Orberg for other Latin teachers here), and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to having pictures even for things where a picture seems enough. In other words, sometimes I’m even right about what the word means (i look it up) but I’m still uncomfortable because I’m not sure. This is not to mention all the other words in which help is not given – even more frustrating.

      I did this when I first started teaching and when I learned about giving English, it was easy to see from my own limited experience how much wasted time, and anxiety was caused by not just giving an English gloss on a word.

      I really like Lance’s idea. Give him a really uncomfortable experience in which giving English would make all the anxiety go away.

  3. Thanks everybody. I like all the ideas. I’m going to try all of them. However, for now I’m going to be gracious and build rapport. I absolutely smashed a 40 minute demo today to an English class and was careful to not speak one word of Spanish, even though I did have the structures with translations on the board. I recorded the session to show the director later down the road.

    I wouldn’t give a crap about this guy except that it’s the university where we have our student visas. After having two terrible experiences with closed minded people at previous jobs, I’m just plain worn out with fighting the fight. I’ve been trying to live by Mike Peto’s advice to only work with people who are open to CI and want to understand SLA. I do have some projects here in Colombia that I’m very excited about, and It’s a really good feeling.

    I did find some gold on Chris’ website that I’ll bring up to the director later. For now, I’ll just continue to do what feels good in a fun and non-coercive way. I really believe the style will be demanded the more students and teachers are exposed to it.

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