I haven’t been consistent in documenting the latter half of my TSL classes and it’s already come to point where I’m finished with my TSL classes! I will dearly miss it… I’m considering taking the next level but I’m not sure how my work schedule will be so I’m still on the fence (and the classes are held Friday night… really bad in terms of motivation to attend class). I wanted to reflect on what I’ve enjoyed about the class, where I see improvement, and what effect I feel this will have on my approach to teaching and language learning.
1. Second, I mean Third, I mean Fourth Language Acquisition
In my M.A. TESOL program, we started out our graduate program learning about second language acquisition. We also learned that while there is a lot of research being done on second language acquisition, third language acquisition and beyond is still an emerging field of research. So far, I’ve had classroom learning experiences with English, Mandarin, Spanish, American Sign Language, and Taiwanese Sign Language, in the order listed with varied degrees of exposure. In learning TSL, because it’s very much directly tied to Mandarin and American Sign Language, and ASL is tied to English, this four-language combo has made learning TSL qutie confusing sometimes. For example, in TSL class, if I’m confused with what the teacher is trying to explain, the first thing he’ll do is explain it to me using written Chinese on the board. However, my Chinese reading skills are quite elementary so the next thing the TSL instructor resorts to is using either English or American Sign Language, whichever he is more familiar with. While I understand his effort to use any linguistic means possible to help me understand, all the code-switching that happens between these four languages actually gets me more confused than before. Much of the confusion also comes from the different pragmatic usages and connotations words have in the different languages. For example, I became confused while learning how to sign “中國” (China, the country) and “中文” (Chinese, the language) in TSL because in ASL, there is one sign for both of those words, even though in English, we use two words to represent those ideas. As you can see, sorting out the different ways the four languages are used is complicating.
This brings me to my teaching. In recent Taiwanese news, students will be required to take a language class in one of Taiwan’s native languages (Taiwanese, Hakka, or one of the other Aboriginal languages). That means as part of the the nations compulsory education curriculum, Taiwanese students will grow up having formal classroom language learning experiences in Mandarin, English, and one of Taiwan’s native languages. I wonder if my students will experience the same kind of languages as I have had in learning English, Chinese, ASL and TSL… notably making connections between the languages but also experiencing confusion from those languages. This is certainly a topic I’m curious and interested in, something that I think if I were going to pursue a Phd, I would want to research.
2. English/Chinese/ASL/TSL only policy in the classroom
During my graduate study in the M.A. TESOL program, I found myself interested in the debate of the English-only classroom. I was interested in the idea of the relationship between an English teacher and English learner as a power dynamic, the acknowledgement of the native language(s) as useful for language learning, and the consideration of how appropriate using the native language would be in different teaching settings. My ESL teaching experience has mostly been with students of varied language backgrounds; thus, using and enforcing an English-only policy, to me, was important in creating an equal opportunity learning environment for everyone, where no one was left out of the loop because no one else spoke or understood their native language. I have also had the opportunity to teach beginning literacy level adults, all of whom spoke Spanish as their first language. In that learning context, it was incredibly helpful for both my teaching and their learning, if not necessary, to use Spanish to teach English.
As a learner, I’ve realized that all of my language learning experiences, except Spanish, have been in classrooms where the teacher enforced a total immersion environment. That is, when it came to learning Chinese, ASL, and TSL, the teachers only used the target language in their instructions and only permitted us to use the target language in our interactions with the teacher and other students. Especially when it comes to learning ASL and TSL, these were languages that were so different from anything I’ve learned before and languages that I had no opportunities for exposure to outside of class.
As a teacher, I’ve been strict with my students using their native language in class. So often, what happens is students will have side conversations and chat with each other using their native language. Because exposure to English in Taiwan is less accessible than when I was teaching in the U.S., I think it’s particularly important for my instruction and student’s interactions in my class to be in English. However, since everyone will be able to speak and understand Mandarin, I think it will also be a good tool to help them understand more abstract and difficult concepts in English. Thus, I plan to maintain my English only policy but also loosen my regulation of students using Mandarin to help each other.
3. Pragmatics, Interaction, and Communication
One of the things I would have liked more of from my TSL class is more interaction-based activities in class. I used to hate these kinds of activities as a student. I would have much rather just listened to the teacher. However, especially in language learning, I’ve found that without opportunities to practice using what we’ve been learning to communicate with someone, even when we spend so much time learning lots of vocbaulary, grammar, and sentence structure, the actual usage of the language is still underdeveloped and inexperienced. As a teacher, I understand that each class session is only two hours long and that we can only choose so much to cover. I would have much rather learned less vocabulary words and spent time practice using the more commonly-used vocabulary words. Even though that I know many of my students will groan at pairwork and groupwork in class, I truly believe that there is value in framing and structuring a class based around communication and interaction in the target language. After all, how are students supposed to perceive language learning as a form of learning communication (which seems to be a rare mindset in theTaiwanese education system) rather than memorizing words and grammar, if the teacher doesn’t structure a class that mirrors the communicative teaching mindset.