How do you impress upon others that those who study a language and its origins, learn the rules of the grammar, identify the parts of speech, and watch videos of places of where the language is spoken, is not what translates into acquisition of that language?
Sometimes object lessons are more powerful than words. Recently, it became clear to me that I needed to share the following lesson with my students.
For four days, I set aside 4-6 minutes each class period to discuss an unrelated topic: unicycles.
First, I asked students if they could ride a tricycle.
Then I asked if they could ride a bicycle.
Lastly, I asked if they could ride a unicycle.
After all, tricycles, bicycles, and unicycles are all forms of transportation. The obvious difference is the number of wheels.
I continued the short lessons for the next 4 days:
Day 1 - Define the word "unicycle". Explain that "unicycle" can be used as a noun and a verb. Read the history of the unicycle.
Day 2 - Project an image of the unicycle with the parts labeled.
Day 3 - Discuss the physics of riding a unicycle. More info. here.
Day 4 - Show a short video on the basics of how to get on and ride a unicycle. Define "idling" and "free mount".
I read the quote by Katherine Peck:
"For many people it is all in the mind, because they have to get over the fact that there is only one wheel. Others just have to find their inner balance. There really isn't anything linear about the unicycle and that is partly why it is considered to be so hard to learn. YOU are the steering wheel, YOU are the brakes and YOU are what makes it go."Day 5 - As students entered the classroom, I had a video playing of several guys doing tricks on a unicycle; and later I showed part of this video. Then I gave them a "quiz" on the material they had learned throughout the week. (fyi - the quiz was not recorded in the grade book as a language quiz)
To grade the quizzes, the students and I left the classroom and walked to the atrium area of our school. Most of the students had a perfect score. "GREAT!" I said. I told them how happy I was that they had learned so much about the unicycle. Then I said that since they knew so much about it, that meant that they should be able to ride one. After all, they got an "A" on the quiz, so they should be able to ride a unicycle, right?
Everyone knows it doesn't work that way. The students knew it didn't work that way and I knew it didn't work that way. So why do some believe if they learn about a language and can conjugate verbs and identify parts of speech, that means they "know" it and have the ability to communicate in the language?
The beginning stages of learning to ride a unicycle include a LOT of support for the rider. It's uncomfortable and you will fall, but it's part of the learning process. I have yet to meet someone that can jump on a unicycle and smoothly ride away on the first, second, third, etc. try. It takes time, patience, an open mind, and a desire to learn. But you absolutely MUST get on that unicycle to learn.
The same is true for acquiring a second language. In the beginning levels, you'll need a LOT of support. It's uncomfortable at first because the sounds are different, the structures are different, and the words are different, and you will make mistakes, but it's part of the learning process. I have yet to meet someone that can hear a language spoken for the first time and be able to smoothly communicate in the language on the first, second, third, etc. try. It takes time, patience, an open mind, and a desire to learn. But you absolutely MUST actively use the language (listening, reading, and responding when ready) in order to acquire the language.
So...back to my students in the atrium holding their perfect quizzes on unicycles. I told them to look at the last question which included the quote listed above by Katherine Peck and I read it to them with a few changes. I read:
"For many people it is all in the mind, because they have to get over the fact that it is a different language. Others just have to find their inner motivation to learn. There really isn't anything linear about learning a language and that is partly why it is considered to be so hard to learn. YOU are the steering wheel, YOU are the brakes and YOU are what makes it go."
Then, I called to two students that were waiting just around the corner with a unicycle that I had previously directed them to collect in a nearby classroom. The other students were surprised to see the unicycle. Any takers? Anyone willing to give it a try? One student that said he used to be able to ride in the past wanted to try, but he was unsuccessful.
Any other takers?
The students knew that their knowledge about unicycles wasn't going to magically transform into the skill of riding a unicycle. They hadn't practiced it so they couldn't ride it.
What's a teacher to do to demonstrate that practicing a skill, such as communicating in a 2nd language or riding a unicycle, is the key ingredient for success? I suppose riding the unicycle would make an impact.
What are the chances I demonstrated that for them? I guess only the students and I know the answer to that, especially since they all had left their smart phones in the classroom. How often does that happen? Coincidence?
I repeat, sometimes object lessons are more powerful than words.