Learning Languages : Who Says You Can’t ?

The effectiveness of Google Translate.

The effectiveness of Google Translate.

Its something we rarely stop and think about, but language is vital as it not only connects us but can define who we are and how we relate to one another.

Our classroom focus this year is on connection and as the year has progressed, there has been a hidden element behind connection, that of language. We communicate with one another in English, and through the subtleties of body language daily, but through our journey towards connecting with others via social media, we have become more aware that our world consists of much more.

As a child, I was immersed in two languages from birth : Arabic and English. My early years, I attended an American elementary school and was taught in both languages, however when my family relocated to Canada, my parents feared that I would lose my Arabic as English and French became my two most practiced languages. Arabic was my connection to my heritage and even more importantly the only way I could communicate with my father, grandparents and extended family. As this was a time before internet and access to communicative technology, my parents did what any other would do when wanting their child to learn something;  They enrolled my brother and I in Arabic school on Saturdays. There I was at the age of 8, trying to balance three languages and two very distinct cultures.  I didn’t know it at the time and as much I hated giving up my Saturdays for more “school”, access to another language was one of the most important gifts my parents gave me.

Growing up in Ontario, learning French in school was mandatory. All English language schools taught French as a Second Language from grades 4-8. I never questioned this and thought it was a norm until I moved to Alberta where the only access to another language for elementary students was to be enrolled in French Immersion which was not offered at all schools.

Teaching at a small rural school, my students do not have this option. They were fascinated upon hearing me speak Arabic and French and I could sense  that they felt it was something some adults learn “one day”. This train of thought changed this year with teaching the Grade 3 Social Studies curriculum about Ukraine, Tunisia, Peru and India. They slowly began to see that there were other students around the world learning and speaking multiple languages. Their fascination grew and grew and I could tell that a shift was happening. It wasn’t until one day while communicating with a French class in Manitoba on Twitter that the inevitable question was asked, ” Miss Ariss, why do all of these kids everywhere get to learn languages and we can’t?” I was looking at their little faces, trying to find the best way to explain it; the politics behind curriculum creation and design and culture. However, what came out was this instead, “Who says you can’t?”

I’ve always reinforced to my students that they own their learning. They have the power to learn anything they want and are living in a time where they have access to the world and even if something is not taught in school, that doesn’t mean they can’t learn it or that it’s not valuable.

Languages was one of those things and they were determined to learn one, so we created Language Club. We meet twice a week at recess and each student is given an iPad to research and learn a language of their choice. I downloaded Google Translate, DuoLingo and Tellagami to begin with. They explored the sounds and letter configurations of a variety of languages: German, French, Ukrainian, Greek, Spanish, Dutch, Korean and Arabic – if only to test my knowledge and that of the translator. They each ventured into a language and chose phrases, words and thoughts that they wanted to learn. Using the translators and feeling quite comfortable, they began to practice speaking out loud with one another and through their virtual Gami. It’s not perfect, but its a start.Their goal is to be able to lead a conversation in their chosen language with someone else who speaks it whether on Twitter, Skype or face to face. They want to connect and communicate globally.

When an intrinsic drive for learning exists, it is our responsibility to foster it and provide the opportunities for it to grow. I am overjoyed to see their faces beaming with pride after learning and sharing a new phrase. They are not only learning new languages, but more importantly, they’ve learned that they CAN; that they have the power to learn anything at anytime and to share that knowledge and power with the world.


5 thoughts on “Learning Languages : Who Says You Can’t ?

  1. I’m so impressed! I recently showed Division 1 students a Korean translation of one of our library books and talked about how popular books in English get translated into different languages all over the world. Students realized that a translator would have to know at least two languages very well and all put up their hands when asked if they would like to be able to speak other languages. A few, of course, already knew at least a little of a second language and were very proud of it. Why is it that when we begin to formally teach another language, students loose interest so quickly?

    Have you looked at Muzzy the ORC for this purpose?


  2. Thank you Cindy. I believe its in our nature to want to connect and communicate with others. Our world is so large, but we can close some of the gaps by learning about one another and celebrating our cultures. This is where language becomes so important and in learning other languages, we are also learning about histories and heritages.

    You bring up an excellent point about losing interest. In formally pushing anything, we lose sight of the purpose and also the intrinsic want of learning. They are focused and interested because it means something to them. One of my students chose Korean because her friend speaks it at home and she wants to communicate and connect with her more. She has an internal purpose driving her to learn.

    I’ve not heard of Muzzy, but have just looked it up! Thank you for that recommendation, I am always open for more as we continue on this journey!


  3. In Manitoba we have to take French from Grades 4-8 so I find it odd that they don’t learn French in Alberta. Of course, as a kid I didn’t think this way and was annoyed that my mum ,made me take it when it became optional in grade 7 and 8 as well as high school. Yet, when I was in high school three of my close friends were originally from another country and spoke different languages and this amazed me. I was annoyed that their cultural background included a speaking a different language at home but with my Australian cultural background I didn’t have anything really different than my Canadian background including another language. I love the idea of your language club. We have two sisters who speak Arabic (one in the other grade 3 class) and one in Grade 5 as well as Spanish students in Grade 4 and 2 if your students are interested in a Twitter or Skype conversation in the future.


    • Thank you Zoe. It’s made me want to research language learning provincially. They do learn French in Alberta, but only if enrolled in full French Immersion and if that stream is offered at the school. Many do not have access and if they do its not a language of choice or interest.

      I will definitely let my students know. That would be an excellent opportunity for exchange!


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