A mini-festo

Last September the NECTFL Review published my article Essential Questions for Linguistic Literacy in the World Language Classroom. I wrote this article as a warm-up before tackling my next book project, Bringing Linguistics into the Spanish Language Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide, now in press with Routledge. The article was an opportunity to think through the general issues the book would cover before applying them to Spanish. Parts of it found their way into the book’s introduction (with the Review editor’s blessing, for which ¡muchas gracias!).

The article proposes five linguistics-based essential questions for world languages, shown at the top of this post. They loosely correspond to the fields of descriptive, theoretical, historical, socio-, and psycholinguistics, respectively. They meet the seven criteria for essential questions put forth by mavens Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins: they are (i) open-ended, (ii) thought-provoking, and intellectually engaging; they (ii) involve higher-order thinking, (iv) point toward important, transferable ideas that may transcend disciplinary boundaries, (v) raise additional questions, (vi) require support and justification, and (vii) recur over time.

The article gives examples of linguistic insights corresponding to each of these questions from a variety of world languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, and Spanish. Some examples are the German letter ß (Question 1), grammatical gender (Question 2), the Indo-European origins of French, German, and Spanish (Question 3), tonal variation in different varieties of Chinese (Question 4), and children’s verb conjugation errors (Question 5).

In the article (and my book) I argue that bringing linguistic insights into the foreign language classroom “add[s] intellectual interest by connecting Spanish to other languages, to general linguistic principles, and to other fields such as history, geography, sociology, and psychology.” This approach can also help students understand seemingly arbitrary aspects of the target language, such as irregular verbs that have simple historical explanations, and encourage students to accept differences between the target language and their first language.

The article describes how teachers can present linguistic insights in the classroom, for purposes of enrichment or explanation, lead related in-class activities, and assign take-home projects that further reinforce and/or explore these topics. As an example of an in-class activity, French students can discuss the advantages and disadvantages of gender-neutral adaptations to French grammar. As an example of a take-home project, Arabic students can ask a pen-pal about their experience communicating with speakers of other varieties of the language.

The downside of this approach, as one of the article’s peer reviewers pointed out, is that it does not contribute directly to proficiency in the target language. My response to this objection is that language is part of culture, and learning about the target language is just as valid as learning about other aspects of culture, such as food and music. To put it another way, If a Spanish class has time to debate their favorite tapa (I just made that up), they can debate whether Spanish writers should continue to use the language’s unique ¿ and ¡ marks. If the class has time to dance a tango, they have time to learn about dialectal aspects of Argentinian Spanish, from its distinctive treatment of yeísmo to voseo.

Compared to other cultural topics, linguistic topics have the obvious advantage of being directly related to the object of study in the world language classroom: the target language itself.


Publishing this article was personally meaningful to me in three ways. First, I hadn’t published a refereed journal article in two decades. For a PhD type like me, that was a long drought — though I did publish a significant and well-reviewed book in the meantime, while focusing primarily on my teaching. The NECTFL Review is “only” an online journal but its refereeing process was rigorous and greatly improved the article. Second, it was a real kick to identify and explain aspects of five unrelated languages that illustrated the essential questions. This was catnip for me as a linguist.

Third, and most importantly, the article (and my forthcoming book) satisfied an itch that has been bothering me since I took teacher training classes at Pace University in the aughts. When we learned about essential questions as a key ingredient in curriculum design, I was disappointed that there did not seem to be an adequate set of questions for world languages. It struck me as axiomatic that these should come from the field of linguistics. It feels great to have finally scratched that itch.

This third reason underlies the title of this post. The article is a manifesto, expressing novel ideas about world language pedagogy that I have been pondering for several years. But it is not only brief, but also modest. It does not insist that world language teachers adopt this approach, but rather introduces it and points out its advantages. In fact, the article (like the book) explicitly suggests different degrees to which teachers might choose to adopt this approach. This could be as minimal as offering linguistic explanations from time to time, to clarify specific topics and/or to add enrichment, or as maximal as maintaining the essential questions as a conceptual framework that the class returns to throughout a year or semester. Hence: a “mini-festo.”

 

2 thoughts on “A mini-festo

  1. Janet Terry

    A very valuable approach! I think it is extremely helpful to students to understand how language reflects the speaker’s view of reality and how that in turn helps the student learn the language. For example, what the constant use of the subjunctive tells us about the speakers’ way of thinking about power in life and relationships helps the student understand and appreciate its use.

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