Onward with the JNCL Challenge

By: David Bong Co-Founder & CEO of Avant Assessment Friday, May 12, 2017

Day 4 of JNCL Challenge

More driving, more Spanish talk radio. Love it. I still don't understand it much, but I am enjoying the music of the language, and being able to figure out a word or a phrase now or then.

I am an occasional meditator. I know it is good for all kinds of things, but I don't regularly make time for it, and it takes effort. But I do it, and all in all, I like it. It struck me that my experience of listening to Spanish radio was a lot like sitting down and meditating. That probably sounds bizarre, but read on.

When I first turn on the Spanish radio, I hear sounds, noise, no patterns and no individual words. I'm overwhelmed. My mind tries to focus on the language, but for the first minute or two, my mind wanders and I drift in and out. I work to chase away the distraction and focus on the words and the flow of the language, and I begin to pick out words I know, then ones I don't know, but can figure out. Then I am locked in and enjoying the ride.

Meditating - at least for me, is a lot like that. I sit down and focus on my breathing, but my brain quickly drifts to what I need to do for work, or who the Ducks are playing that week, or some other random thing. And I am failing, so I work to chase the random thoughts away and gradually, and haltingly, I get in the one and am one with the universe, or something like that. And the meditation does its work.

There was an interesting article that came out last week describing how just listening to a language is a very effective way to learn it. Here is the article. Listening to Learn a Language I would agree - but in my opinion, only if you can actively shut out everything else and connect with the language. Just say OM -in Spanish.

Day 5 of JNCL Challenge

Left Miami and there was no more Spanish talk radio. Bummer. So I started looking online for radio broadcasts. I found some but couldn't download them on my phone. I finally got one to download from Madrid radio, but I couldn't understand it at all. So I tried downloading a free Spanish learning program. I wasn't interested in studying short phrases spoken slowly with vocabulary I didn't care about. Maybe I'm crazy, but I want to learn from real language even if I barely understand it.

So I picked up one of those free Spanish tabloids with lots of ads for lawyers and restaurants. I struggled through a short article about president Trump's budget and the health care proposal. Thanks to Google translate I can pick out and translate individual words or phrases and even keep a list of ones I want to memorize. I imagine most people already know about this, but it is new to me and it's fun to work with. So now I have found an article about a Spanish teacher who moved with her family to Florida from Puerto Rico in search of opportunity.

My method is a lot like the one I remember using when I was studying at a language school in Tokyo. I would go to the language lab - really just a room with a couple of tape recorders and headphones, and just repeat and repeat sentences out loud. This gives me confidence in uttering words as phrases and sentences and gives me some building blocks. It also seems to help me memorize them and, even more importantly, it gives me a feel for flow and for the music of the language. Spanish is very different music than Japanese or French, but they are all beautiful, just different.

Day 6 of JNCL Challenge

Thinking more about my crazy learning method of taking an article from a Spanish newspaper and just using that to learn from instead of building up sets of words and grammar. To me this makes the learning process fun. I take a real article and go through it and learn each and every word and repeat it out loud every day until I really understand it and can read it smoothly.

I don't try to learn the verb forms, or syntax, or particle roles. But each day they seem to be clearer to me and I uncover a layer of meaning that I didn't really understand before. A phrase that I understood the words to yesterday, but didn't understand their meaning was - in talking about how the teacher in the story prepares students: "tenemos que trabajar en equipo y hacer un esfuerzo por entender un sistema que es muy complejo". I initially read it to be "we have them work on equipment and make them a force that understands a system that is very complex". Then yesterday the pieces fit differently and I could see it as, "our work is to equip them and get them to embody the force to understand a complex system". Now maybe I am still wrong, but I can feel the language opening up to me and welcoming me in. This is exciting and fun. I now find that throughout the day the words from the article pop up in my mind randomly.

Taking a more theoretical perspective or analysis of my learning method, I am reminded of a chapter in the book "Innovative Strategies for Heritage Language Teaching" edited by Dr. Sara Beaudrie of Arizona State University and Dr. Marta Fairclough, Avant's partner at the University of Houston. The chapter is by Dr. Maria Carreira of Cal State Long Beach and the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. Titled, "Supporting Heritage Language Learners through Macrobased Teaching", it describes two methodologies for teaching and learning a language. Basically, it says that pure L2 learners start with a blank slate so teachers can and do build up their language blocks methodically. Dr. Carreira calls this Microbased teaching. Heritage learners on the other hand, come to the classroom with a lot of knowledge of the language in place. That knowledge will vary greatly from student to student and likely have elements that are different from the language taught in class in terms of dialect, syntax, morphology, spelling etc. But they bring a base knowledge and feel for the music of the language that is powerful and can be built upon. They also have the fundamental concept of living in the skin of someone whospeaks another language. This may be even more valuable than the elements of the language itself that they bring because they know how to operate in another language and are not afraid to do so.

Many, if not most, heritage learners are randomly forced into Microbased teaching classrooms. This is frustrating for both students and for teachers. Dr. Carreira describes the Macrobased approach for heritage learners. In this approach, teachers work with heritage learners on content that they understand some of, but not all. Then the task is to fill in the blanks or add elements that are important for the variant of the language being taught. You can imagine how much more rewarding this approach is for heritage learners. Aside from the fact that the language they bring to the classroom is respected and seen as a base to add to, instead of something flawed or crude to be rejected, it allows the learning to start from an advanced point, yielding powerful results.

Although I certainly can't say that I am proficient in Spanish, I do come to this challenge with a couple of foundational language elements that make Macrobased learning more appropriate for me. I am proficient in Japanese, having worked in the language as a businessman in Tokyo for many years. I have also studied French for five years in a proficiency-based program, and informally learned some Spanish over the years. So Microbased learning just frustrates me. Now I am working on stories that have pretty advanced content, but still can't count to 100 or conjugate any verbs. This may sound strange, but it feels good and seems to work.

Author

David Bong Co-Founder & CEO of Avant Assessment After successful roles in consulting, sales and web service information, CEO David Bong co-founded Avant Assessment in 2001 with his wife, Sheila, and Dr. Carl Falsgraf, formerly the Director of the Center for Applied Second Language Studies at the University of Oregon. Avant is a leader in improving student outcomes in immersion and world language programs by providing data from its online, adaptive, real-world language assessments.