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.