As I have mentioned before, earlier this summer I went on a study abroad to Spain. I also had the opportunity to come to Cambodia for two months with my family, where I teach English to children in an orphanage. From these experiences, I have learned a lot about language, its importance, and how, as teachers, we have to be aware of what students are actually understanding.
Language is an amazing thing. To communicate, we have to decipher sounds, gather connections to make sense of those sounds, come up with words to describe the meaning we want to communicate, and then move our mouths correctly to say those words. Somehow we even learn grammar, reading, writing, and eventually become skilled at weaving words to persuade or discuss an idea we have. Yet, for most people, all of this is a daily occurrence that happens very rapidly. Most of the time we hardly think about it at all.
I started to appreciate how complicated the concept of language is when I began learning Spanish. At first, I thought it would be impossible to learn how to conjugate verbs and place pronouns quickly enough to have any sort of normal conversation. Yet, as I continued to learn, conjugation and other grammar rules started coming more freely and naturally, just like our native language does.
It is amazing to me that while we can communicate, words always mean different things to different people. We have dictionaries full of definitions, but in reality, each person is continually forming their own web of connections and meanings based on the many times they have heard a word and the many experiences they have had with it. Children have not been exposed to language for as long as we have and have smaller webs of connections.
As I have been teaching English to Cambodian children, I realized the students have smaller webs of connections as well since English is not their first language. Sometimes I think they understand what I say when in reality they don’t. That can be very overwhelming and confusing to them, and it has helped me realize that while students can communicate, they might not be fully grasping all that we are trying to say. I have to continually monitor what the students understand and what they don’t. When they don’t understand something, I say it in a more simple way, describe it differently, or try to “show not tell.” Then the activity or concept I am teaching goes a lot more smoothly.
What have you learned about the role of language in teaching from your experiences?