Last week I was inspired to meet many language teachers and representatives of educational organizations. I also had the honor of presenting to them. (Preparing for my talk, I took a break from learning new Somali so I just reviewed vocabulary.)
Friday I went to present at the 2014 annual conference of the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Languages and Culture (MCTLC). The group consists mainly of K-12 (that is, elementary, middle, and high school) teachers of languages. Since this is Minnesota, USA, the most significant language is Spanish, followed by French, and also English for non-native speakers. I also met several Chinese and Japanese teachers and two Swedish teachers, too.
I liked the conference because it focuses on the practical. I’ve been to many academic conferences, which skew towards the abstract, even ideological. This conference, though, seeks better results from students in speaking and understanding a new language. In the US teaching languages is an uphill battle, so I admire these folks. Many of them work for very small salaries and little prestige. One teacher even told me that he’s not sure if the administration knows they have a Spanish teacher at the school (him).
Presenting on Cultural Agility
I presented on the role of the language teacher in Cultural Agility. Cultural Agility is the name of a bundle of traits–and of a book on this topic–that allow one to work effectively among different cultures, and solving the problems that always arise in such situations. I looked at which traits language classrooms develop well and less well, and how to improve the latter.
Language teachers, in my opinion, get in their classrooms the young people with the most potential for Cultural Agility. They work to speak a new language and connect with a different culture. In class, the students have to go outside of their comfort zone to deal with the frustrations of speaking in a non-native language, sounding dumb and not understanding others. These experiences do a lot to develop Cultural Agility.
At the same time, most language classrooms teach less effectively the traits of solving real-world problems and overcoming cultural clashes to produce results, and Cultural Agility requires mastery of these abilities. So I challenged my audience to think of ways to engage their students in real-world problem solving with the language as the means. While much of language class involves language as the object of study, discussing and solving problems while using the language would prove invaluable. Students would have to learn the correct vocabulary and it would stick because they needed it. I included a few anecdotes from my own experience in problem-solving as examples.
I presented also from the perspective of working in a corporate setting. Since these teachers work with young people, hoping to prepare them for jobs later on, I believe that my bringing these teachers a perspective from 10 or 20 years down the road can help them hone their focus. My desire is like theirs, to educate young people so they can enjoy using their language(s) throughout their life.
Great individuals and organizations
I always enjoy seeing acquaintances and meeting new people at these events. During the conference I got to check in with and meet several great teachers and organizations. I got to see my friend who works in world languages for the Minneapolis school district (the largest district in Minnesota). I got to meet some of the other leaders in the MCTLC organization. I enjoyed an extended conversation with a Spanish teacher from rural Minnesota, learning about how he got into teaching Spanish and what his life is like in his small school. I went to sessions about making education more culturally relevant in multi-cultural classrooms, and using classroom “interruptions” and student quirks as language-learning opportunities.
Several fascinating organizations were also represented. I met some of the people from the Concordia Language Villages. (They are pioneers in immersive language learning. If that’s your area, you really must learn more here.) There was a table from the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota, and one of the representatives there is Hmong, so I got to ask about Hmong education in the Twin Cities. (Hmong is the third most widely-spoken language in Minnesota.) Finally, I got to meet the representatives of the Educational Foundation (EF). They specialize in student exchanges, and they’re the organization I went with to France with when I was in high school.
I was energized to see who all was represented and how hard everyone is working to teach what I believe is essential for everyone: loving languages. I am grateful that I could contribute to this goal.
Do you teach languages? Are you affiliated with a language-teachers group or formal organization?
Do you learn languages on your own? What do you wish language teachers knew that they don’t seem to know?