Friday, June 14, 2013

At the CASIE Speakeasy for Gaelic -- a student perspective

     Recently, Rachel and I went to the CASIE Speakeasy's Gaelic presentation. We both went with different intentions and, thus, you will find two blog posts about this. When Rachel posts hers, I will link to it.

A few bits of background on me that will make this post make more sense.

  1. I am a 4%er. I love, L-O-V-E the intricacies of language and I am that student who sits in the front (partly because I wear glasses) and raises her hand and asks, "okay... so what if I were to do this in the language... how would that look". I love the puzzle languages present and I love the rush when I try to put something together myself and I get it right. 
  2. I am a perfectionist. Someone commented to me while there that they noticed how I wouldn't respond unless I was sure I'd get it right. I am also that kid. I get frustrated when I don't get it right and I get upset when I can't figure it out. Sometimes that is mistaken for lack of caring or anger... if it is, it is anger with myself because, as a 4%er, I feel like I should be able to get it. 
  3. I am Irish. I bleed green, white, and orange. I come from two different Irish clans. While we do not have family there now, to the best of my knowledge, we know where they are buried and we've kept our Irish heritage alive within the family. It has long been a dream of mine to learn to speak the language. I have tried numerous times on my own and, as my dad put it after coming back from his recent trip there, it is the language that eludes. So, you can imagine the squeal I let out when I saw that it was being offered -- an hour and a half of direct instruction in the language I have been longing for.
     The thing to remember about the CASIE speakeasy events is that these are full immersion events. The speaker is to speak no English once the session begins. There is a Q and A session in English afterwards, however. Our teacher, Ms. Eilis Crean (founder of The Irish Gift) was teaching us through folk song. We were given a handout with the original Gaelic lyrics, the English phonetic version, and an English translation. Ms. Crean used a PowerPoint presentation to introduce the song, it's history, and certain pronunciation points. 

     After she was introduced, the lesson began. I was poised and ready to take notes. I knew I wouldn't understand everything, but I'd hoped to start putting pieces together right away. Man, was I wrong. Okay, that sentence was hard to write. I wasn't expecting to struggle in the beginning to the degree I did and that threw me for a loop. It wasn't the teaching or the teacher. It wasn't the setting or the materials, it was me! I had gotten caught up in my own 4% that I'd forgotten about the 96%. I'd forgotten to listen. I mean, really listen. I'd forgotten that in order to figure out the puzzle, you have to take a step back and get a sense of things first.
(left to right) Me, Rachel, Eilis Crean

     Once I realised what was happening, I was quick to take a step back and start over. Then, I was able to start picking up things from what she was saying. She gave examples of pronunciation in the language  She had us repeat after her. I knew that even if I didn't get it at first, by the time it got to me, I'd have it... or... I'd be first and she'd correct me until I got it. At first, I was scared (being the perfectionist), but I quickly got over that because she made it clear that we'd speak, even if we were "just" repeating. There was, oddly, some comfort in that. I started scribbling notes.

I want to pause here for a minute and make a note: I've studied many languages in one form or another (9 including this brief session). The three that have stuck are Latin, English, and Arabic. Over the years, I have found English to be incredibly lacking when it comes to language learning. So much so that I rarely take language notes in English. I pause to say this because there may be a situation where a student is taking notes in his or her native/another language. I am not sure this is a bad thing. I can make connections to Gaelic using Arabic and Latin that I cannot do using English. English is not my "language-learning" language. 

     I scribbled furiously. After the session, it was noted that I'd been scribbling all over my paper. The people at my table, at one point, just stared at me. Ya, I'm that kid. I realise it was distracting to them at some point, but, from my perspective in that moment, I was in my zone. I was figuring out the puzzle. It didn't bother my table too much and some of them took from my cue and started their own notes. One of the benefits I think of working with a folk song to learn the language was that I could take notes. We didn't move so fast that I had to quickly scribble and then start something new. I had the time to figure things out in my own way. Things were repeating constantly and I could start to put pieces together. The great thing about a song is that you can look for similarities in the structures and words that stories and straight up sentences don't always provide. From that, I was able to start pulling vocabulary out. 

Eilis Crean and her violin
 Ms. Crean went over each line, repeatedly. She'd go over it slowly, speaking, then she'd introduce the rhythm. Finally, she'd introduce the tune. By the time we were to sing, I felt confident enough to be vocal. It was easy to feel confident in this class. We spoke as a class at first, then by tables. I never felt singled out, but I also knew that I wasn't going to get an easy pass and not have to participate. By the end of the hour and a half, I felt confident with the song, if not all the words. By teaching each verse and chorus in the same manner, I was able to pull other vocabulary, like some numbers, words of praise, the command to "repeat", and some other tidbits. 

     Using the lyrics, I started pieces together the history as well. There were certain adjectives that went with certain nouns and there were repeated phrases that, using the English translation, showed clear Gaelic idioms. It was a piece of heaven to me and I had great fun taking it apart and putting it back together. 

     Overall, I think the lesson was great. I feel like I walked away with some immediate knowledge about the language and, as I will detail below, about myself as a teacher and a student. Ms. Crean did a great job and, even though I found Gaelic to be difficult, I am inspired to continue. As a teacher, I feel like that is the goal. Besides teaching the language, instilling passion to continue learning. I walked way knowing three things: I'd forgotten some about being a student, I've learned some things about being a teacher, and I will not give up my dream of learning Gaelic and will sign up for more classes. 

I'd forgotten some about being a student
  • I am a 4%er. I accept that. As a 4%er, I get caught up in the puzzle and forget the first step of learning a language -- the wonder. I imagine that there are quite a few 4%ers in our own classes that do the same. I wonder if they have the thought to stop, take a step back, and wonder?
  • There is joy in figuring things out on my own, even if at a very basic level. I hadn't forgotten this so much as forgotten what it felt like. As a teacher, I need not underestimate that in my own students. 
  • Culture shock is real. This kind of goes back to the first point. That overwhelming moment when your brain says, "oh... no. nope. sorry. NOT going to happen."
  • If I know that I will not be let off the hook, but the pressure of performing perfectly that I already feel is not doubled by the teacher, I will learn faster and will remember more. 
  • I was personally invested in this lesson. Even with the culture shock, I continued on, with excitement. 
I've learned some things about being a teacher
  • I cannot assume that my students will remember to listen, on a very basic level. I need to work with that. I need to make sure my students get that if they are not getting it themselves. It should be low stress and should not be based on the time I have, but the time they need
  • There is a way to remove the pressure of speaking individually while making sure every student knows they must speak. Choral response is a good start and small group response is a good follow-up. Students who need to extra repetition get it and students who are moving ahead get to be leaders.
  • Breaks are necessary. Krashen says i +1; Brain research says that students can only learn for a specific time based on brain age; WAYK says that "full checks" should be frequent and taken very seriously. Culture shock is okay, but only in small doses. 
  • I must find topics that students are interested in, either by my design or theirs, or some combination of both. 
     Ultimately, as a teacher, this lesson reaffirmed for me what I know about Comprehensible Input. Basic skills, small steps, enjoyment, breaks, self interest -- all of these are key pieces. In order for 100% of students to learn, I need to reinforce basic skiills, take small steps, enjoy their accomplishments fully, with them, force breaks when necessary, and make sure they are interested. 

     Even if CASIE is not the venue, I'd recommend some language learning for all foreign language teachers. We need to be reminded of what our students go through. We need to be aware of their struggles and their thoughts while learning something we've known how to do for a while. 


  1. thank you, Miriam. very thoughtful and thorough. I got a lot out of this post.

    1. Thank you Stephanie! I am glad you found it helpful.