Learning to Understand -- An Ongoing Endeavour: Part II
Author Joe Hackman
This year marks Señor Greenberg’s fourth year teaching at Charter. Prior to teaching, he studied Spanish in high school and at the University of Delaware (UD), reading a lot of Spanish literature along the way. Through UD, he seized the opportunity to study abroad in Argentina, Panama, and Costa Rica. He spent a year in Costa Rica teaching in an elementary school. After travelling to Ecuador, he was inspired to pursue Spanish. He believes studying abroad will help language learners immensely because they get to see the language and the culture in action. He has travelled to several countries in Latin America and Spain. He has a nine month old son, Jack, around whom Señor and his wife speak both Spanish and English. ¡Vámanos!
Concerning learning to understand, what do you think is unique about Charter?
From a teacher’s perspective, it’s a relatively easy job because the majority of the students do want to learn. So you’ve already eliminated the fact that the government or your parents are making you go to school. The majority [of the students here] have at least that motivation to learn whether it be for a good GPA or to get to college, or a job or whatever. Whatever task a teacher presents, the class will not put up too much resistance. I think this is because the students trust that the teachers have their best interest in mind.
How do you feel language and communication, in your case Spanish, affect learning?
[Concerning] Spanish, you can use it all the time. We live in the United States, so we grow up speaking English, but there’s this whole world to explore, a whole world that exists where the language that you hear and speak and see, and it’s not the language you grew up with. What struck a chord for me is when I went somewhere and I heard the language I learned in the classroom and realized that I could actually use it. It became real and tangible. Showing authentic material -- songs, videos, poems, tweets, whatever -- instead of memorizing vocab and conjugations makes the language real and applicable to students.
How do you approach teaching teenagers who are already fluent in English, as opposed to teaching your son, Jack?
It’s a lot easier with him because he’s nine months old and [my wife and I] just speak all Spanish to him. It’s a lot easier for him to absorb that information. He doesn’t know that “rojo” is “red,” he just points at something and says “rojo” is “rojo.” He’ll make that connection, [whereas] most people don’t have to make the connection by saying rojo is red . . . . So it’s more challenging with people who have already formed their language [and] made those connections. It’s a tendency in humans to say something with the language they know better. The idea is to immerse in 90% of class time in Spanish and trying to reserve the other 10% for when you really need the English to clarify . . . . Your brain has already made that connection to an object in English, so I want avoid translating everything for you. I want to you to make the connections yourself.
So you want us to use context clues?
Yes, and that’s what life is like. In textbooks, the editor has chosen a set of words or structure that they believe fundamental for a language, but when you hear it and experience it, it’s not compartmentalized like that. It’s a living thing. You’re not just constrained to a specific set of grammar focused on whatever. Real language is, you know, chaotic. It’s not like present and past tense are isolated from each other; they work together. And that’s why I like using songs and videos because it's natural. Language is naturally formed like that.
By making language connections in a parallel manner with your son, do you feel you’re opening him up to this world much sooner than everyone else, so later he doesn’t have a closed mind about it but has already grown accustomed to both languages?
Yeah and I know he’s going to be stronger in English [instead of Spanish] since everyone around him is going to be speaking it. But I think if we keep giving him that exposure at home, it will open his brain up to the idea that there are two languages spoken there. Then when he gets older he can learn another language and has the capability to make those connections more easily . . . .
Why do you think music plays a large role in language?
It’s an easy way to grab attention because it’s a human instinct to pay attention to music whether you like it or not. It’s a good way to become exposed to another culture and to learn how music sounds in other countries, although there’s a homogenization of rock and pop.
I see that when I do my “el mundo real (the real world)” activities.
Some other students see that too. They’re also finding groups that have a rock foundation but retain cumbia or traditional [style]. Also, you don’t always have to look for the grammar, but when you look at lyrics, you can pick up a lot of those connections. I did that when I was a student and I realized, “Oh, I know a lot more than I thought I did.” The more you listen, the more you’ll pick up on these connections in the language and it will roll off your tongue [more easily].
Especially in language, people’s minds work very differently from each other. How do you go about taking people’s unique attributes and applying them to learning a language?
You look at whatever your interests are and make sure you know how to talk about them. My idea is that if you’re communicating, you’ll most likely be talking about things that appeal to you. Again, it might not be in the textbook. I try to encourage kids to take their interests and talk about them no matter what they are. It's going to entail putting in independent work since we only get about 80 minutes of class twice or three times a week. You need to take the initiative and immerse yourself in the language outside of class. Watch movies that you like with the Spanish dubs and subtitles . . . . I used to watch the Simpsons in English and then in Spanish. In a year, you’ll find out student’s strengths and you have to realize there will always be the student who’s very strong, and a few who aren’t nearly as strong, but they still have those attributes that will help them out and they still want to learn. If they seek language that they can use to express themselves and their interests, it will appeal to them and they’ll want to learn. I try to make my lessons something that you can relate to and enjoy, as well as including some life lessons in there. I try to make it relevant for everyone regardless of skillset so that you can apply it to life.