The Ins and Outs of the Romance Language Classroom

By Philip Wander, Hostos Community College of the South Bronx

Teachers are always looking for something to enhance their students’ experience with, and retention of, the material they present. This something need not be revolutionary or demand a fundamental change to current practice.  In fact, small, incremental changes often best enhance current practices. This essay presents a device not meant to replace any other; a teacher could start using it tomorrow without doing violence to her usual practice. Not meant to replace bad practice with good practice, more gradual than transformative change, what this essay proposes is part of the learning principle known as interleaving (Carey). Interleaving is about variety and recognizes that spaced learning practices simply work better than the repetitive learning that many of us are using in our classrooms. Short, provocative units of information, linked to existing cultural and intuitive networks, “spaced learning” (Roediger, McDaniel and Brown)  is easier for students to relate to and retrieve and uses networks of information they bring with them to the classroom. The process does not judge what we determine as outsideclass learning as better than insideclass learning, nor vice-versa. Still, the common practices used in an average Romance language classroom are heavily weighted towards the inside-class with much less regard for the outside-class. Homework, someone will protest, is a good example of a task performed outside the class; yet tasks such as homework are always linked to assessment and thus are inextricably bound to the inside-class. In the language classroom, we should strive to strike a balance between inside-class and outside-class, and not only in the interest of a supposed equilibrium. The place where the students learn the most is in the shuttling from one to the other. Only if what goes on in the classroom in some way relates to the “real” world outside, does reliable learning take place.

A class or defined period of learning can be a monolithic structure punctuated by brief journeys to the outside world. The rules of this structure can be stultifying. Rote memorization of vocabulary makes the most attentive among us slumber. Yes, repetition is the mother of memory, but even the most diligent student’s attention can fade at the sight of another vocabulary list.  Students chaff at repeated reiteration of blocks of information which they perceive as equivalent, even when the content is, in fact, quite different. A connection between content and the students, rather than content and more content, has to be established. To be successful, intrinsically generated activities that students make their own are the ones they retain; intrinsically generated activities have the additional benefit of connecting to students’ personal interests. These interests are part of the capital they bring to the class, capital not to be wasted if the teacher wants to create a successful learning environment. Engaged students are like so many free radicals, each anxious to contribute its energy to the common enterprise.  Grasping this energy and using it is a powerful tool in transcending the confines of the typical language classroom.

Quite by accident, this teacher, browsing several language-learning websites for ideas, discovered a seemingly inert device that gets one out of the classroom routine every time. This device exploits the class “prelude” (the time prior to when the teacher takes attendance), and involves putting a simple sentence in the target language on the board. Especially during the first few weeks of the semester, this sentence is comprised almost entirely of cognates, and the students are pleased to ascertain their ability to read complete sentences in a foreign language: an unlooked for gift. The  following is the example of such a sentence:

Mes amies organisent une fête pour célébrer le mariage d’Hélène et Georges.

Teachers should make clear that these sentences have nothing to do with “official” class time; students won’t be tested on them and are free to jot them down or not. Nevertheless, teachers should choose the sentences carefully. Some part of them should connect to the day’s lesson, and students’ perception of this is part of the pleasure they should take from them. In part, due to the implicit culture content of the sentences, a link between the foreign culture and the students’ occurs. I call the freestanding sentences I put on the board “tableautines” for French classes and “lavagnarini” for Italian classes. In the sentence above there are several “messages” that tie in to French grammatical content. There is the “accent circumflex” which, by replacement with an “s” often yields a close cognate to English. Then the “d’Hélène” nicely illustrates elision with a silent “H”. Finally I point out the non-pronunciation of “ent“ in the third person plural of a regular “-er” verb, and elaborate by remarking that four out of six persons are pronounced the same.

The cultural content of the sentence is obvious; marriage and celebration are readily assimilated and recognizable to students at an American college or university. Also, as one scholar states,  all language teachers are teaching culture too:

Although the inclusion of culture in the foreign language curriculum has become more prevalent in recent years, gaining in both popularity and respectability, there are still those who either ignore the concept or deny its validity. Ironically, while these holdouts are presumably ignoring culture in their classrooms, they teach it every day. There is no way to avoid teaching culture when teaching language …From the first day of the beginning class, culture is at the forefront. (J. C. Valdes)

Teachers should cull their private store of sentences from newspapers, books, and magazines; this helps the sentences remain fresh and topical and ensures they target something which might actually interest the students in real outside time.  There is an undeclared connivance between that day’s lesson and some facet of the sentence, but the link can be tenuous and is not declared by the teacher unless he/she is asked. Teachers are not obliged to translate the sentence, nor is it necessarily verbalized. In some classes the sentence goes unnoticed until class is over, but more often than not, one or several students will attempt a translation. Rarely, even in the last minute of the period, does someone not at least ask for hints about some gap in their translation. Before the end of the term, the students take full possession of this “outside” of the class locution, and often state its meaning without teacher intervention.  In taking ownership of this “outside” classroom practice, they also become autonomous learners. Autonomous learners are, of course, defined by their autonomy:

Autonomy, or the capacity to take charge of one’ s own learning, was seen as a natural product of the practice of self-directed learning, or learning in which the objectives, progress and evaluation of learning are determined by the learners themselves. (Benson)

Judgment of performance becomes autonomous and personal as well. Students, at least insofar as the sentences are concerned, become their own teachers. They are linking short-term memory goals to long-term memory content. They shuttle between inside class content and outside class assets.

This device constitutes a springboard for learning and discussion that appears spontaneous and expansive, natural and independent: a breath of fresh air that piques their interest and invites familiarity. So far no one has ventured to bring one of their own sentences for posting, but it is only a matter of time. Pattern and recognition of outline are signs of students’ progressive proprietorship of the phrases and are key ingredients to learning a language:

The ability to learn a second language may depend less on linguistic skills and more on the ability to recognize patterns, according to new research. (Frost) 

Recognition is a step towards mastery and ownership, a revelatory moment in which students solve the “puzzle.” If the class being taught is successful, the whole class will experience those moments often and will want to experience them more; it is extremely pleasurable when our predictions ring true.

And the process is democratic. What I have called here the “outside” class content does not create disparity between the members of the community: it is free and accessible to all. The difference between the have nots and the haves (those who always answer, comprehend, and participate), is suspended; the sentences belong to the whole community. Egalitarian and accessible, students’ responses to these sentences are not part of assessed academic achievement and are not tied to a grade. They constitute an exercise that encourages free interaction with the language and is not judged.

The heavy use of cognates posits a kind of universal language that students can exploit. Especially in introductory classes populated by adults, failing to make use of the linguistic structures already present in students’ consciousness would be unsound practice. The often expressed idea that languages should be taught as if to a child is simply wrong. Much of a language’s structure is common to many others, and the recognition of pattern, blueprint, and relationship between a student’s native language and the one being acquired is a substantial part of the capital that adult students bring to their learning. The teacher should not exclude whatever is useful for the task at hand in the classroom; rather, teachers should bring out what students bring in.

Cognates and underlying common structure allow immediate entry to the new language and culture. The great, though passive, vocabulary and syntax of the student’s native language is the doorway through which the greatest number of recognitions will take place. Cognates, cognition, prediction and recognition all relate to the awareness and intuition supplied by the students. As long as the teacher can create the channels whereby this latent knowledge finds expression, the trap of faculty-centric instruction is circumvented. We all know that learning has to be an exchange; the days of the theory that students are so many empty vessels waiting to be filled with our carefully chosen content are over. Students have to actively participate in class to benefit from it. It is the teacher’s job to make them discover their resources and risk them in the give and take of the class. It is a collective enterprise, and everyone, the teacher included, must take risks to create skills and value. The sentences on the board are invitations to participate:

La batteria è carica (charged), è possibile usare il cordless.

Their participation in the “lavagnarini” and “tableautines,” in fact, percolates through every aspect of class, because these lavagnarinis or tableautines train students to anticipate meaning rather than to look for it in rules or memorized vocabulary. Confronting a sentence that they don’t understand forces them to predict its meaning, which engages the whole network of their learning skills.

As I have been arguing in this essay, small changes to our teaching — such as the way we approach the closing minutes of class — can make a big difference.

…when you are forced to make a prediction or give an answer to a question about which you do not have sufficient information, you are compelled to search around for any possible information you might have that could relate to the subject matter and help you to make a plausible prediction.6

By the end of the semester, students take full possession of the sentences and put them to use. Sometimes they contain grammatical structures that the students have not yet encountered, sometimes there is unfamiliar vocabulary. Through the habit of teasing out meaning and extracting sense, students discover subject matter that piques their interest and validates their investment. By this time, they are adept at making rough translations and are more intrigued by the cultural context. This context carries the class outside of the classroom.

There are many other tools used to expand the outside classroom and make it work in foreign language instruction. The random sentences put on the board before each class are a powerful initiation. They direct students’ thinking to the practical applications of their learning and the possibility of concrete travel in the language, but outside the classroom.

Actual travel abroad is the natural extension of the use of “tableautines” or “lavagnarini,” both constitute a kind of excursion to the host country in a way that the textbook cannot. Shuttling from the outside class to the inside class mimics real travel, and prepares the student cognitively for the real thing. Whether it be travel abroad, field trips, or technology outside the classroom, all get the student out from behind the desk, out of the classroom, and out of the constraints imposed by the physical class. Students gladly embrace the liberating effect of simply changing venue, and embrace the outside classroom as the inside of a greater reality. Buying a cup of coffee, or finding the bathroom in another language brings a whole new level of concentration. In the best of all possible worlds we would always opt for travel abroad or submersion.

In an ideal world our classrooms would be small enclaves of immersion; the urgency of living a language makes all the difference for students who might be simply fulfilling a college requirement and do not wish to pursue the language further. Once students live in a language, or are immersed in it in an immersive classroom, they perceive that the world can be made of the language they are learning. They learn they can live in that language, instead of simply fulfilling an academic obligation. Language is culture challenging them as students and as global citizens. They find the idea of world travel intriguing and delight in the sweeping awareness of at least a piece of the world outside of their neighborhood, their school, their major, and their classroom.  They gain a more globally elaborated picture of international actuality and their part in it. Language learning can be a game-changer for those sheltered students who experience a foreign language for the first time. Full immersion is the best fit for certain language learners, although not for all. Unfortunately it is beyond the reach of the majority of students. Through incremental changes, we can take steps towards an immersive classroom. As James M. Lang observes in his series of articles on time management, “Closing the gap between actual foreign travel and language instruction should always be on the mind of the language instructor.”

Real sentences from authentic contemporary sources help with this goal. Students should also be encouraged to establish a pen pal with a native speaker who is simultaneously learning the student’s language—a bona fide win-win exchange. Sometimes the student will find his own correspondent, or there are many internet sites which will establish the link for the student. There are even postings rating the relative quality of the various sites, though faculty might want to encourage students to be judicious in their choice of websites.

Each class and course we teach should be an adventure and a journey for our students. A syllabus spells out the itinerary that we mean to follow, but it is only a roadmap. How we get there is entirely up to us. The train schedule says we will arrive in Paris in one hour and fifteen minutes; we have much time to look out the window and observe. Ultimately, although language teachers know there is no substitute for travel in the target language’s country, more of us are finding ways to make our classes travel. In this time of dwindling enrollment, we are of course anxious to get students into our language classes; getting them out might be the best way.

Works Cited

Carey, B (2014) How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where and why it happens. New York, NY: Random House.

Roediger, McDaniel and Brown (2014) Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Valdes, Joyce (1990) Culture and the Language Classroom ELT Documents 132 Editor: BRIAN HARRISON © Modern English Publications and the British Council 1990

Benson, Phil (2013) Teaching and Researching: Autonomy in Language Learning. Routledge, Nov 4, 2013 – Language Arts & Disciplines – 296 pages.

Frost, R. (May 28, 2013 ). Picking Up a Second Language Is Predicted by Ability to Learn Patterns. Psychological Science, science.

James M. Lang (2016)  Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning,, James M. Lang – ‎Education

James M. Lang (MARCH 07, 2016) Small Changes in Teaching: The Last 5 Minutes of Class. The Chronicle of Higher Education, A version of this article appeared in the  April 1, 2016 issue.