A ‘new’ reality for language learning

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I’ve been taking a course through the University of Ottawa about teaching in a minority Francophone context.  It’s pretty interesting, mainly because I’ve spent such a long time teaching language courses during my time as a French Immersion High School teacher.

I’ve spent a lot of time understanding why creating an authentic context for students learning a second language is important.  I worked through a lot of memorization activities, lots of worksheets, lots of grammar taught in isolation before I figured out that first of all, kids don’t find that interesting in the least, but secondly, and more importantly, this is not how students learn and apply language skills.  And of course, this should come as no surprise to anyone: kids learn best in a context that is engaging but also meaningful.  It has to be relevant to them to make connections for learning.

I can think of two really great teaching moments in my last year of teaching.  In my grade 10 core French class, we were studying travel.  I turned my classroom into a French café, complete with bistro tables and lighting, French music and menus.  Students were required to order in French – j’aimerais avoir un crêpe au fromage, s’il vous plait.  They had options – crêpe au nature, crêpe avec les fruits, crêpe au jambon, the list goes on.

The second great moment is from a group that was a bit harder to engage.  We were studying French language and culture and it was tough.  The buy in wasn’t there and students were not connecting.  We were talking about colonisation and how the French language had moved across the world.  What had worked with the café was still in my mind so we had a café style set up in my classroom once again; chairs were turned to tables with tablecloths, candles and food, and a high stool in the middle with a spotlight for the storytellers to come and perform for the class.  It was still a challenge because the material was difficult, but the format helped to encourage students to relax and become more comfortable with the content.

Both of these moments stick out for me because the students found them so unexpected.  Attitudes changed and while they weren’t as authentic as they could have been, it did help to create connections for the kids.

My course now talks about the reality of teaching French language courses in a minority context.  And while the focus is on the francophone school division, there are some really key messages that remind me of the power of authentic learning and the importance of creating our identities as language learners.

One great quote in my reading today was this (translated): Cultural and linguistic diversity prevent humanity from viewing the world with blinders, rather they enlarge and enhance our vision of the world.  (Davis, 1999).  I do believe that language learning, for all students, allows them to see the world differently.  The question will continue to be if we can make them see that themselves.

Our new Interdisciplinary French Immersion Curriculum for K-2 in Saskatchewan talks at length about creating an identity as a language learner.  Students need to understand that French language learning can be challenging at times, and yet they need to develop their identity in this way.  Landry and Allard (1996) speak to necessity of the educational milieu in creating a meaningful language experience for children.  In many instances, school is the only environment in which children have exposure to the language and so the connections that enhance these skills are born from the classroom and the interactions with their peers.

Landry and Allard also indicate that an effective language program can counter the effects of assimilation on the language, especially if the quality of the programming brings children to identify themselves as language learners, that this becomes a part of their identity, that they develop a sense of belonging and learn to connect with the language community as a whole.  While I imagine these words are primarily destined for learners in the francophone school division, I can see how they connect with our philosophy in French Immersion – creating identity, creating a community, developing belonging.

While this has always been the message in French Immersion it is interesting to see it articulated so clearly in this new curriculum.  I hope that the intent to develop this curriculum from K straight through to grade 12 continues as I see this philosophy as being so important in early years and beyond.

It is so important to understand that the French Immersion learner is so different from the learner in the regular program.  Any child is capable of language learning and creating an identity for themselves as a language learner.  (Check out this article about the myths & realities of French Immersion).  Not only that, the role of the teacher is different as well.  According to Gérin-Lajoie (2002), the teacher is responsible not just for transmitting knowledge, but for ensuring the socialization of children and to ensure that the language and culture of the minority language are transmitted as well.

It’s a huge responsibility and one that can be challenging to balance with curriculum and content, outcomes and indicators, differentiation and lesson plans, musicals and play days.

I’m sure I’ll have more to add on this topic as my course continues.

Next to ponder… teaching in a minority language context, the EAL learner and the late immersion student.

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One thought on “A ‘new’ reality for language learning

  1. This is some interesting insight into the immersion schools. I’m an adult, learning Spanish with BRIC Language Systems, so this whole concept is pretty ‘foreign’ to me! (pun intended)

    I remember there was a French immersion school near me growing up. Didn’t realize how much went into it. Thank you.

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