If you know nothing about language pedagogy, it may seem like a good idea to hand an issue of Teen Vogue to a French 14-year-old and ask her reading comprehension questions about a feature on Willow Smith. You might think how great it is that the article features words like, “kismet,” “soliloquy,” “serendipity,” and “inextricable”—all in a single paragraph! Spoiler alert: NOT great. Fifteen minutes later, when tears of frustration have been cried by both teacher and student, you think: where did I go wrong?

While this is a particularly dramatic moment, I have made a lot of similar mistakes during my experiences teaching English and French to students. In this post, I will try to pin point the moments where I went wrong so that I can problem-solve about how to do better (and so that we can all share a laugh at my expense).

1. Speaking too much in the student’s native language

Most experts recommend that foreign language teachers conduct at least 90% of the class in the target language. That means that 10% of the time, teachers and students can use another language in order to clarify what they mean. The 90/10 model appears straightforward, but it can be difficult to know when to bite the bullet and speak the student’s native language, and when to continue to offer the student alternative explanations in the target language.

Sometimes, I have been so eager to connect interpersonally with my students that I revert to using their native language. For example, as an Assistant Teacher (AT) in the French Department at my college, I often crack jokes in order to loosen up a group of tired, anxious students. This semester, I was an AT for FRE 102, a second-semester French class. My students were not at a level where they could detect humor in French, and so sometimes I would sneak in a sarcastic quip or two in English.

The problem is that using your students’ language too much can set a bad precedent; students might not take the practice of immersion seriously.

One way around this, of course, is play up your nonverbal communication. Whether it’s making a funny noise to indicate a correct answer or pantomiming an absurd vocabulary word, there are plenty of ways to build rapport with students that don’t involve speaking to them in their native language. I think I finally understand why my French teachers were always so weird!

2. Trying to become the human Google Translate

I do whatever I can to make my students comfortable asking me questions. Sometimes though, students get used to asking for translations of the words that they want to use instead of practicing circumlocution–-expressing an unknown word or concept using known words and concepts. Circumlocution is really, really, important, because one day you will find yourself in a context with actual French-speaking humans, and maybe you will be trying to impress your host brother’s cool friends, and you will NOT want to ask, “Euh, comment dit-on, ‘Nice motor scooter’?” You know, just hypothetically.

Of course, you want to encourage your students to learn new vocabulary words, but their expression shouldn’t be continuously disrupted by translation requests.

3. Planning activities that are fun, but unspecific

Textbook exercises and grammar drills can become monotonous, and open-ended oral expression can be terrifying or overambitious for a group of beginners. Creative, communication-based activities are a godsend in these cases. I have had students write cooking shows, plan entire vacation itineraries, and make comic books.

While these activities always seemed great in theory, they occasionally lacked enough structure to address learning goals. For example, a group of students performed a cooking show episode in which the chef’s eyebrows were burned off (hilarious, and they all the learned the word ‘eyebrow’) but they used none of our cooking verbs from the chapter.

When planning a fun and open-ended activity, I’ve found that it’s really helpful to give some structure or constraints so that students’ energies are directed toward learning goals. This can be as simple as giving students a list of things to address in their work (e.g., “make sure your skit uses these five vocabulary words,” or “make sure your story is written using the imperfect tense”). Giving specific requirements can also make it easier for students to figure out a direction when they have a lot of discretion.

 

What are your biggest foreign-language teaching mishaps?

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