Monday, November 28, 2016

Becoming a Student Again

"So, Magistra, just how many languages do you speak?"

I probably hear this question at least twice a month if not once a week. I usually respond by asking them to "define speak". Ultimately it boils down the fact that I love languages. I studied Latin, Spanish, and French in high school, German, Latin, Greek, and Arabic in college, and on my own time, I've studied (to varying degrees) Mandarin, Hebrew, Korean, Thai, American Sign Language, Russian, and Irish.

Of all these languages, Latin has become, quite literally, my bread and butter. I love Latin. That being said, I've had reasons through various venues and situations to desire to learn and focus on some new languages: American Sign Language, Mandarin, and Arabic. In all three, I've become a student again learning, mostly, on my own. It has been an interesting journey thus far and one I'd like to share since we as educators so rarely get to experience it.

The Tools

Since I am on my own for much of this, I use a variety of tools (mostly online) to help with this process. Some of these are marketed to teachers as a way of doing homework or sub work if the teacher isn't there. So, I'd like to say a word about each and any thoughts or issues I've had. 

  1. Duolingo - (free) I use Duolingo to brush up on my Spanish, and will use it when I need German and French for my doctorate in Latin. As of right now, Duolingo is working on expanding its language options. I am hopeful that advanced courses for Arabic, Mandarin, and ASL will be ready for when I need them. I mostly use this, when I use it, online since I only keep the apps I use regularly. 
  2. Memrise - (free with paid options) I used this with Rachel when we were preparing for our Latin proficiency exams for our Masters using Dickinson's frequency list. Now I use it for Korean, Arabic, and Mandarin (although mostly Mandarin). I like this because it has lessons and lets me set goals. Duolingo does as well, but doesn't have Mandarin at this time. Memrise also has memory aids submitted by users. I don't always find them helpful, but they can be to others. I do wish that Memrise would let me speak into the app and compare it to the native speaker, like Duolingo does.
  3. Mango Languages - (free for some) I got free access for this through my library. My brother has access through his university. If you don't have access through something, you will need to pay for this. This works almost like, in my opinion, a combo of something like Memrise and a textbook. It takes you through lessons, asking you how to do things, and providing grammar, culture, and pronunciation help. It is by far the least interactive of the three, but it provides notes the others don't. Mango does have Latin, but I will tell you that it is heavily reliant on Caesar and translation. This may be useful for AP work, but I haven't explored it enough to feel confident to recommend it. Mango also includes some culture notes as well and includes things in various phrases, allowing you to practice in contexts that Duolingo and Memrise don't quite. 
  4. Youtube - (free) I use this for Thai and Mandarin mostly. I look at Thaipod or Chinese Podcast conversations to listen to tone (which is key in both), and get some in context experience. 
  5. Podcasts - (free) I use podcasts the same way I use youtube - in context listening. 
  6. Textbook - (free from a friend) I am borrowing an actual Chinese textbook from a friend of mine for practice. I am using this for writing practice with the writing system that Chinese has, vocabulary lists, and reading practice. This particular textbook has short stories and conversations in it along with grammar explanations and practice. 
  7. Other communication tools - I am not familiar with many languages' tools, but there are lots of communication apps for languages. I use Line, which is Chinese friendly to communicate, and Kakao is Korean friendly. Line also has "official" accounts which include some language accounts that offer daily words, phrases, etc. I also downloaded Google keyboards to my phone for Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic. I can quickly switch between them to type messages or look something up. I also greatly recommend doing this through a single service, not separate keyboards. Since I did it through Google, I have a button on the keyboard that allows me to switch quickly, without having to go into settings. 

Issues and Concerns

I am not normal. I am learning these on my own time because I want to. Not everyone enjoys what I do. The same goes for our students. In order for many of these to be useful, students will need to have the desire to go further or to learn what these offer. I find them useful, but I also know how to use them, given that I've had training in this area. Most of our kids won't. If I offer these resources to a student it's because they've asked for them. I've offered Duolingo to a student who wanted to stay in Latin, but also wanted to learn French to speak to his family. I've offered Mango to a student who is learning Arabic for a trip. I cannot say whether these are useful for a whole group, but if you can find your language on them, you may find some individual uses for them. 

The Language Experience

Each of these three languages is different for me. I am using them in various situations and so each experience is different.


I actually already speak Arabic. I learned it in college as my minor for my degree. My brother is now taking it in college, also as his minor. I help him with vocabulary and grammar and I've had the honour to attend his class as a visitor. What is unique about this experience is that while I learned Modern Standard and Egyptian in school, my brother is now learning Levantine Arabic. And so, in a desire to communicate with him, I have taken to learning this new dialect so that I can help and communicate with him. Most of my actual learning is on my own, using Mango and occasionally Memrise, but I get to communicate with my brother via text and actual conversations. Some of them are dictated by his course, so we can practise thematic vocabulary. 


I do wish I was getting more CI in Arabic. Right now I mostly get words and phrases that I then figure out what to do with. The grammar is mostly indirect which is helpful as my brain gets to work it out on its own, recalling and remembering things I learned years ago. I would like to read more Arabic script, but I've had trouble finding CI things to read in Arabic. 

All that being said, I do find the presence of my brother incredibly helpful as I learn this new dialect. It has also inspired me to seek a higher degree in Arabic, but, again, I'm not normal. 

American Sign Language

I've been learning this on and off since I was little. My mother signed for her travelling choir and once when my kindergarten teacher lost her voice and switched to sign language, we learned basics as well. Since then I've had few opportunities to use it. I've signed some songs, taught vocabulary, and had a couple of conversations, but I have not had much of an opportunity to practice. This is a big hindrance in my learning of this language, especially given my desire to become certified in ASL. That being said, I continue to learn using Memrise and as a member of a Facebook group for ASL learners. They post videos, hold chat sessions (which I often cannot attend during the week), and share resources. 

This experience has been interesting because, given the lack of communication for me, there has been a lack of CI. I will readily admit that I am not aware of all the resources, but as an example of what our students may struggle with, the lack of CI makes retaining this language difficult for me -- even as a "not normal" learner. The best I can do in the form of notes is descriptions of hand signs or pictures, which are not always helpful. That being said, Life Print University has recently come out with some CI type conversations, and there is a series on youtube of conversations and lessons which I am beginning to use. 


This language is one where the importance of CI has been made even clearer to me. I am not a normal learner. I thrive on learning new languages and figuring out the puzzle. Our students are normal. If I struggle, and I do, acquiring a language like ASL, then our students most certainly struggle if we don't give them comprehensible messages in the language.

Mandarin Chinese

Speaking honestly, I never thought I'd have a desire to learn this language. I had wanted to learn Korean, but Mandarin was not high on my list. It is now and it occupies the highest spot on my list and I love learning it. 

I have more help for this language than for any other through colleagues (Diane Neubauer @DuYanzi) who provided excellent starting places for me and key hints on learning this new writing system, a former student who meets with me once a week to chat and practice, and my own personal experiences. I use Memrise to learn words and am familiarising myself with the script this way as well. I have a textbook borrowed from my friend that has thematic vocabulary and even little stories and scripts that are CI-friendly (although I have not spent enough time with them yet to say more). I also have, mostly, experiences with food and food culture that have helped me retain more of this language, although my comfort level in speaking is very low. 

I started by listening to a recommended podcast, even though it was above my level (remember: not normal). I would listen in the morning on the way to school and again on the way home, making mental notes. By listening to the same podcast twice in one day, I started to retain the basics (and quickly learned to recognise things like hello, goodbye, my name is, how are you, etc.). Then, I started with Memrise and meeting weekly. I picked up some answers to the "how are you" question and started to put together pronouns and build my own sentences. Through these meetings, I've begun to connect Cantonese with Mandarin as well. When I compare how one person says one word with another, it creates more connections in my head as well. 

I remember one particular instance when an Asian street food type restaurant opened near my house. I had just learned the word for "steamed meat bun" earlier that day and the restaurant bears that name. I think I nearly jumped out of my car when I saw it and it quickly became one of my favourite words (and places to eat). 


I have been told that when I study Mandarin I look like a two year old discovering things for the first time and that it is quite amusing. I don't doubt it. I have, by far, the most CI in this arena, even if through unconventional methods, and this language is incredibly compelling for me. I am terrified, however, of making mistakes and probably impede my own learning a bit in that way. That being said, I have certainly acquired a lot in the few months I've been working on it and I look forward to learning more, even if I don't have as much CI as I might, but, then again, I am not normal. :)

Overall Conclusions and Thoughts

From the outside, these experiences may seem relatively unimportant or relevant to our students, but from my perspective, I have learned a lot about what my kids need. I hope to have more lessons to share. 
  • Students NEED CI - Heck, I need CI. I am the kind of learner who has chosen to spend her free time learning languages on the side. I revel in colour coordinated notes and I absolutely love charts. I need CI. My kids need CI. 
  • Technology is not a fail safe or replacement for real life communication -- Technology is great and without it, this whole experience would be much more difficult for me. That being said, if my experiences are examples, I excel when I have real life experiences (like in Mandarin or Arabic), so do our students. Reading is one of the quickest ways to get CI to our kids, and it is one of the easiest ways for me to intake information, but language is about connection, ultimately, to people.
  • Learning a second language is not like learning a first, and yet... -- Before I started learning these languages, I already spoke three and had studied many more. But nothing compares to that moment when you make a real connection and acquire something without realising it. That is true when you are two and realise what a cookie is. It is true when you fall in love with an author. It is true when you learn a second, third, fourth, etc. language. In SLA we can use our other language as a connection, but we still have those moments in the new language that we thrive in. Those moments, I am more and more convinced, are the same we thrived in with a first language - first being understood, speaking without panicking, responding without thinking, reading. 

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