Making learning language interesting

My first semester at BYU, I took a Biblical Hebrew class. It was a lot of fun; I distinctly remember how in the middle of our first major translation assignment of the semester, I realized that the piece was actually Genesis chapter one. A sort of thrill ran up my spine. My Hebrew skills were rudimentary, at best, and I was only a beginner, but the fact that I had translated something substantial made me proud.

In a similar vein, one of my favorite primers for learning English as a child tackled some pretty intense subjects for an 8 year old. I remember learning about amphibians and the Doppler Effect and magnetism. I would daresay that primers like this kindled the flame that would consume me when it comes to learning and reading. I read voraciously, my English skills improved, and I learned a lot of really interesting stuff along the way. It’s a win-win-win situation.

Unfortuantely, it was a change from my Spanish classes in high school. Most of the sentences translated felt worthless or downright silly. Usually, it fell into the variation of “Juan needs this” or “Maria needs that” or “the teacher likes this” or “the student went to the store.” They lacked oomph, a certain type of panache like the sentences I translated in Biblical Hebrew: “The people rejected God and were destroyed.”

In the position of volunteer teaching ESL, I’ve brought up the prospect of reading out loud to help improve accent, vocabulary, and grammar comprehension and the class seems very interested in the idea. Which leads me to this question: What do I have them read? My friend David at Catchy Title Goes Here writes extensively about education (like textbooks, for example), and as a writer he has contemplated writing his own texts for students learning German to read. Specifically, he planned on teaching through these texts not only the basics of the German language but also the basics of German culture.

We learn language primarily to communicate, whether they be stories or information. But when we begin to learn another language, often the information we practice with holds little pertinence to learning. Yes, it’s important to learn how to ask where the store is or how old someone is. But couldn’t we coach them in more interesting terms, such as how the concept of the supermarket translated to Hispanic culture or the role of age in Spanish social culture? Sometimes, I wonder if my Spanish class had us translating something more interesting, my diligence in high school courses might not have flagged so much near the end.

Currently, I am in the process of re-writing entries from The Intellectual Devotional (you should check it out; it’s great fun) into a simpler format. English doesn’t have to be reading out loud boring sentences about watching how Spot runs – hopefully, my students will enjoy reading about the theory of relativity and Baroque music instead.

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4 Comments

Filed under education

4 responses to “Making learning language interesting

  1. dteeps

    I totally agree! Language learning needs to be more interesting for students, more engaging, and more in their context. I took Greek here at BYU, and we studied dead ancient Greek. So, unlike normal foreign language classes where you learn how to say ‘Hello, my name is’ and can count to 100, all we could talk about was sacrificing servants to the gods. It was, at the very least, interesting reading.

  2. Who did you have for Hebrew? I took two semesters from Don Perry. He was pretty great.

    Most of the Arabic classes at BYU focus on translating Arabic newspapers. And I’m sorry, but the news is pretty repetitive and boring. It’s all political this and explosion that. After your 187th article about an exploding car, it gets pretty monotonous. I always did my best work when we translated short stories or humorous jokes.

    • Ted

      Honestly, I can’t remember who my teacher was. She was a woman, that I know.

      I can see how translating newspapers would be repetitive. Definitely, it seems, that not only do we need relevant information but also variety in order to capture the attention of students.

  3. I have been reading your blog for the last 3 days and find so much interesting topics here. I’ve bookmarked your site hoping that I can take much more benefits from you. Thank you.

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