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In the bullring with a foreign language--ole!

I expect too much from my instructor. I have to overlook his ability and attitudes towards language acquisition and instruction. It's my first day of class--a real intensive tutoring session-and I am so scared. I feel as if I am back in the 3rd grade. The desk is uncomfortable and I cannot fit my legs underneath it. The instructor begins speaking only Spanish. He surrounds me with rich vocabulary, discussion, and cultural episodes. He' s working hard to make me play with Spanish. Oh boy! It begins!

I am in a new class and am ready to close the book and run! I am confused, but want to understand: Everyone responds verbally to the instructor. Students react to his direction, instruction, and questions. "What is he explaining?" I wonder. "Please do not call out my name." He does! I shrug my shoulders and respond, "I don't know--I am a bit confused." Heads turn in my direction. I see eyes of kindness and impatience. The teacher moves on. I will not run; I want to learn. I challenge myself to stay focused and finish the evening lesson. After class, the teacher speaks with me of his "concern" that my behavior was a problem in class. I was disruptive because I did not participate. He asks, "Perhaps you are not motivated?" Shocked, I explain, "I do not understand." I wonder if this is how ELL children feel in our monolingual elementary classrooms?

--RPC Journal, January 2009

I am an Irish Catholic born in Boston, Massachusetts, and continue to live in the greater Boston area. My family and friends cannot communicate in a second language, and I have not studied a language since I was 16 years old. One distant relative speaks Latin and Spanish, but he studied to be a missionary priest.

With the rapid onset of globalization and increasing demand from business, government, and schools for fluency in another language, I decided to learn Spanish. The journal entries above record my harrowing experiences as a fledgling student of a foreign language. Driven by a desire to acquire functional language abilities in Spanish, I have embarked on this "better late than never" opportunity to learn the language, and would like to share some preliminary thoughts with our ACEI readers,

Like many of you, I see the changing demographics in society, and increasingly hear people speaking a language other than English in our communities. In U.S. schools it appears that students who have limited English proficiency are the fastest growing demographic group. Between 1990 and 2000, the share of English language learners (ELLs) in the United States increased by 50%, from 2.8 to 4 million children. Many states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Indiana, and North Carolina, have experienced even higher growth rates, of up to 200% (National Education Association, 2008). As the numbers of ELLs in schools continue to increase, many ACEI educators have a renewed interest in discovering the pedagogy and curriculum teachers employ as "good teaching" that would benefit second language learners. Teacher preparation programs are examining the current and historical instruction methods available to teachers to effectively meet the needs of our newest immigrants. Teacher preparation is forging ahead and coursework is being developed that caters specifically to second language learners and even includes culture-specific courses.

As an educator, I believe a second language should be part of everyone's schooling, university studies, and professional lives. Mounting evidence indicates that learning additional languages has cognitive and academic benefits. It leads to mental flexibility, the ability to shift easily between symbol systems, improved abilities in divergent thinking, metalinguistic awareness, and maybe even higher intellect. Importantly, it contributes significantly to cultural understanding, which is crucial to the well-being of the social fabric (Olsen, 2000).

Before beginning my Spanish classes, I was aware that the older you are, the more difficult it is to learn a second language. There is credible evidence that, overall children are more successful at learning a second language than adults (Baker, Trofimovich, Flege, Mack & Halter, 2008). Some research indicates that there is a critical period for learning a second language and that it is associated with time-sensitive "neurobiological maturation." A second language can be learned with optimal success during these early years (Mack 2003).

Research also indicates that areas of the brain involved in the process of learning a language overlap in a young learner but they do not in older learners. Young learners appear to have a larger composition of "gray matter" in areas of the brain devoted to language processing than older learners do (Mechelli et al., 2004). Consequently, it appears that children can outperform adults in learning a new language. Although this research is revealing, and I am certainly beyond the critical age where learning a new language is easy, I am determined not to let the results of such studies dampen my desire/ability to learn Spanish.

In spite of the many vagaries of learning a new language, it has been a unique and fun experience, one in which I am progressing, regardless of my age. I approach learning with an open mind, and continue to reflect on the methods used to teach me. I also think of ways to help my teacher candidates teach ELL children to develop their abilities to communicate accurately and effectively in English.

Looking back on this fascinating learning experience, I feel satisfied and dissatisfied. My Spanish endeavors are slow but remain meaningful.

* I am satisfied that I managed to study, and began to make connections and limited conversation in, Spanish. I now see many conceptual links to English, which makes it easier to learn Spanish, and the Spanish vocabularies do provide native English speakers something to draw on.

* Surprisingly, I have a new interest in grammar. I want to learn grammatical rules and apply them, yet my teacher insists it would be better for me to "just speak."

* I have discovered a need to watch more Spanish television. I try hard to stop translating back and forth, and begin to just think in Spanish. This is very difficult.

* I always understood that children learn their language though social interactions with family. I realize the need to begin to seek other Spanish speakers to engage in social interactions with me.

* Although I am disappointed with my competence at communicating in a second language, I have enjoyed many learning activities and tried to exploit the valuable opportunities in the Boston area.

Learning Spanish will continue to require persistence on my part. I am working to continue to embrace my Spanish language studies and am determined to bring this personal learning experience to my teaching.


Baker, W., Trofimovich, P., Flege, J., Mack, M., & Halter, R. (2008). Child-adult differences in second language phonological learning: The rote of cross language systems. Language and Speech, 51, 316-341.

Mack, M. (2003). The phonetic systems of bilinguals. In M. Banich & M. Mack (Eds.), Mind, brain, and language multidisciplinary perspectives (pp. 309-349). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., O'Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., et al. (2004). Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431(7010), 757.

National Education Association. (2008). ELLs: Culture, equity, and training module. Washington, DC: NEA Publications.

Olsen, L. (2000). Learning English and learning America: Immigrants in the center of the storm. Theory Into Practice, 39(4), 196-202.

--Ron Colbert, Vice President Representing Intermediate/Middle Childhood
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Title Annotation:Vice President's Vista
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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