“He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.”
- Attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
When was the last time you learned something that was, for you, genuinely new, that you had no prior knowledge to draw upon other than perhaps some random snippets and words? When was the last time you were a student the same way our students are, unable to fully express themselves due to a lack of vocabulary and understanding of how to articulate what you want to communicate?
When I was in Years Seven and Eight, I like many students in Australia had to spend one period of my school week in a language class. My high school had us learning German in Year Seven and French in Year Eight and by far I prefer the sound and feel of German. The only phrase I remember I can remember from that course in Year Seven is nein! meine hamurger! from the textbook (which was half-comic book) and came about as, if I recall correctly, the main character's hamburger got squashed by a football. I can still remember how to count to ten and of course there is a smattering of random phrases from Hogan's Heroes and from listening to Rammstein since wondering what all the fuss was about in the late 1990s.
I have long wanted to go back and resume learning German and over the summer break I finally got around to starting to do just that. I heard a few years ago about an app called Duolingo which was designed to teach a range of languages, including German, and so I downloaded it and have begun plodding away at learning what I am finding is a challenging language. The program seems well-structured and appears to make logical sense, it provides feedback, provides opportunities for reading, writing, speaking and listening throughout, and contains some well-designed bots that are targeted to providing conversation in a range of contexts, practicing words and phrases that are being covered in the lesson set you are working on. If you have ever wanted to learn another language, I would certainly suggest looking at Duolingo. It being free also helps.
It has, however, provided some insight into how my students feel as we work through the English syllabus, grappling with remembering words, phrases, tense, syntax, grammar and of course spelling. Even typing on the keyboard is a challenge as the German keyboard layout is different to cater for the characters that have umlauts. When I was completing my pre-service training, I had a maths lecturer and tutor named Andrew. He was teaching a maths course that was supposed to be a very hands-on course that would provide us with pedagogical strategies for teaching mathematical concepts. However, he went about it using a strategy that frustrated everyone, annoyed and angered some, but which I felt was quite clever and enjoyed despite the frustration. He taught us using Base Four counting which meant that we could not rely on our own unconscious-competence in both knowledge and ability when solving questions and had, instead, to really apply ourselves. His message all the way through was that however hard and frustrating we were finding it, that was how our students would find it as they learned various strategies, mathematical theorems, and basic facts for the first time.
I am finding that learning German is giving me that same "oh wow, no wonder my students get frustrated and give up easily" as I am finding it quite challenging to remember the various tense rules, the gender rules for different nouns and accusatives, and just trying to remember which word means what. It also has me questioning my own unconscious knowledge about English syntax. This article has been floating around on the internet for a while and outlines that native English speakers are not even aware of much of what they know about using English.
This is not a rule I have ever come across before, let alone taught, but it seems to ring true. The article to goes on to talk about some others and it has me questioning how much I reeally know about the English language as I grapple with learning the syntax of German and trying to remember how to conjugate verbs (see this article to get an idea of the complexity).
The point that I am trying to make here is that as teachers we need to be putting ourselves in our students' shoes by learning something new, something that genuinely challenges us cognitively to remind ourselves what our students are going through on a daily basis. If you have ever wanted to learn a language, have a look at Duolingo and remember what it is like to not have the vocabulary and understanding to express yourself fully.
Danke fürs Lesen (Thank you for reading).