What I’ve Learned Coming Back to Language Teaching

So this year I came back to language teaching- Spanish specifically.  It has been four years since I taught language.  In the space in between I had focused on Special Education and getting my Master’s in TESOL.  Those experiences have greatly changed the way I approach my language classroom.  In my opinion, both have made me better at what I do.
So as I wrap up grading the final papers of the year, I am going to selfishly use this blog post as a chance to reflect on what I’ve learned this year as I dove back into this lovely, crazy field.

  1. Kids are never too old for puppets.  I’ve used puppets in every language class I taught and those included students from preschool age to high school.  Here’s the thing- somehow by using a puppet, the kid is less nervous about speaking.  It seems to provide some level of cognitive distance that allows them to feel safer taking risks and making mistakes.  Other teachers are doing similar things with avatars- if you are interested in this idea, check out this blog post.
  2. No matter how much I try, I can’t  understand why some kids will never understand basic formulas for sentence structures.  And no matter how much I can’t understand it, some kids are never going to get those formulas.  I’ve got to use work arounds.
  3. Joining Twitter was the single best decision I’ve made as a language teacher and learner.  That scares me.
  4. Food continues to be a powerful motivator.
  5. Letting go of some control makes my classroom a better place.  It is hard to do and I still require a high level of discipline- but interaction is essential for kids to learn and I’ve seen more students learn from each other this year than ever before.
  6. The best compliments you’ll get while teaching often come from those you least expect.  A student who never seemed to try all that hard said to me “You know for the first time I find myself thinking in Spanish outside of class.  I start taking notes in Spanish in the class after this.”  That is pretty cool.
  7. Some concepts are going to take the time they are going to take. The past couple of years this school’s Spanish program has been majorly disrupted.  Therefore the students are “behind” where I want them to be for their level and I tend to rush through a lot of concepts.  Surprise Surprise- they don’t retain the stuff I rush through.  I’ve got to realize that sometimes a little really well is better than a lot half-arsed.
  8. That said- there is a time to move on and realize exposure is sufficient  We went over commands in Spanish 3 this year.  In my opinion, due to the conglomeration of rules surrounding commands, this can be one of the toughest topics for students to pick up.  It was for this class for sure.  They struggled, they moaned, there was gnashing of teeth.  Finally we moved on to something else.  You know what?  It was fine.  They got the next concept without issue, they could still recognize the pieces of commands they needed, and the world went back to a relative normal acquisition of Spanish.  Sometimes exposure is enough.
  9. Students put a lot of stock in vocabulary and worry about not knowing enough.  I plan to show the video I posted last week in class next year to help combat this.  There are hundreds of thousands of words in most languages- you simply can’t know them all.  But the right 6000 will go a long way.
  10. Times have changed SO much in just four years and it fills my heart with joy.  When I started teaching Spanish right out of college, the #1 obstacle I faced was students saying “Why the heck do we have to learn this?  Everyone speaks English anyway!”  I can proudly say not ONE of my students ever stated that this year.  My students seem to understand that learning languages is valuable to them in both professional and personal development.We’ve come a long way from a principal who suggested it was insane that I made my students speak the language to a principal who reprimanded a student who continuously complained about me speaking Spanish with our foreign exchange student.  (**Important note- I always translated what we were saying so that students did not feel left out or talked about.  Not that I should have to.**)

I can honestly say I fell back in love with language teaching this year.  I love my job in general because it let’s me pursue both my passions- language teaching and special education.  Despite being very ready for a much needed break (yay summer!) I am actually excited about preparing new curriculums and materials for next year.

For now my Polyglot peeps, I must bid you Auf Wiedersehen so that I may grade the 9000 papers waiting for me.  (Only slight exaggeration.)  If any of you teach, I’d love to hear your reflections as well.  Students, feel free to share the best or worst strategies your teachers have used.  Meanwhile, keep that language groove going!

(Who doesn’t love hitting the sample music buttons for these things at Wal-mart and Target? 😉 )
Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/26/14.


Linguistic Vocabulary Unleashed

       Okay I may have oversold with the title.  Tonight I’m just going to explain 2 simple Linguistic terms.  These terms however can explain a lot of confusion many people have about what it means to “learn a language.”

Language learning can be looked at as having 2 stages, especially for those who are still in the world of academia.  These two stages are often referred to as BICS and CALP.

BICS- Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills

These are your basic social and functional language skills.  Introducing yourself, making a purchase at a local store, even basic dating talk all fall in this category.  These skills tend to be picked up relatively quickly.  They are full of scripted phrases with easily predictable responses.  Most students in an immersion environment master these skills in 1-3 years.

Unfortunately for many ESL students, this leads teachers and peers to the erroneous believe that they “speak English” and therefore should be able to do the same level of work as everyone else.  What they fail to take into account is that while these students have indeed mastered daily life language skills, they have not yet mastered the second stage of language learning which is crucial in the academic arena

CALP- Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency

THIS is key.  This is learning all the academic vocabulary necessary for your scholastic endeavors.  This includes both contentvocabulary (specific words by subject area such as allusion in a Literature class or photosynthesis in Biology) as well as structural vocabulary (words like paraphrase, summarize, and compare) which are necessary to complete academic tasks.

Many native speakers struggle with this type of vocabulary.  We often see students who come from homes with less print-rich environments (i.e. less reading and books available) struggle with picking up these new vocabulary terms.  One could argue that they have to learn a new sociolect (think dialect but associated with socioeconomic status).  This type of language is much more difficult for ESL students to pick up, as well as language learners of all tongues.  On average it takes students 5-7years to pick up CALP in their new language.

This why a student may very well be able to shoot the shit about their favorite movies with their peers but not be able to write an effective compare and contrast essay about a book and a film from class.  They may have their BICS but not have fully developed their CALP.

So I think I’ve made it clear why it’s important to understand the difference between these two from a teaching perspective.  But what about as a learner?  Do they matter?

      I think so.  For one thing, understanding the amount of time it takes to pick up each helps one develop a realistic time frame about how long it will take them to do so.  If you want to be able to read scholastic articles in your new language, you are looking at a longer time frame than someone who just wants to order coffee.

For another, I feel like these two can really help someone set their goals in the first place.  Is your goal to be sufficiently sociable in your new language, or do you want to enjoy its literature, history, and other academic contributions?  EITHER IS PERFECTLY OKAY, just one requires a bigger time commitment.  A friend of mine asked me to teach her Spanish.  I asked her what her goals were and she said “I just want to get my BICS.”  Perfect- now I know how to focus your instruction.

In a future post, I’ll talk about the best ways to develop each.  For now, I hope it’s enough to understand the difference and to use this knowledge to help set your goals, pacing, and time frames in realistic ways- enough to challenge, but not so much as to frustrate.

For now, I bid all of you fair followers adieu.  I’m only 1 away from 50- how crazy is that?  Thank you for your support and general linguintastic awesomeness.  Feel free to hit up that message box with your ideas, comments, and tips to share.  Ta Ta For Now!


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/20/14.

My Current Bookmarks

These were my bookmarks as of May 2014.  Things have changed some since then, so perhaps I will update at some point.  But I still think many of these links are useful, so I’m posting it.

Tonight I’m exhausted and so I don’t feel up to explaining Dual Instruction Schools, which was my original plan for a post.  Instead, I’m going to share with you a variety of websites I currently have under my language folder on my bookmarks.  I hope some of these resources will be useful to you.

General Linguistic Info

ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

ACTFL (American Council for Teachers of Foreign Languages) has this guide on ranking students language levels (Novice- Beginner (Low to High)- Intermediate (Low to High) – Advanced (Low to High)).  If you are curious where you stack up, or what is necessary to be considered at different levels, it can be an interesting read, though a bit repetitive in parts.

Living Tongues

This site provides information on endangered languages, a topic near and dear to my heart.  Many languages are being wiped out due to the widespread use of English and other tongues.  (Also as a result of peoples being dispersed due to genocide and commercialization.)  When a language is wiped out, often forms of knowledge and wisdom inherent to the language are wiped out as well.  Please educate yourselves on this topic- as linguists, it is truly a cause to be cognizant of and something to work to change.

Multi-Language Learning Sites


I already gave a product review on this, but it is a still a great beginner site.  It offers several languages in a game like format, with additional opportunities to translate real text.  It primarily offers European languages right now, but they seem to be adding quickly.


I haven’t played with this one yet but it looks promising.  Mostly vocabulary instruction, but it does have several Asian languages, in addition to the European ones. (Small update- I’m a HUGE Memrise user now- so I definitely owe this one a separate article now.)


$$$ Again, one I haven’t used BUT this site hooks you up with one on one tutors for the language of your choice.  It does cost money, but if you are willing to pay (particularly if you are having trouble locating tutors for the language of your choice), what a great find!  It also might be a great choice if you are trying to up your speaking level before a major trip. (Small update- I’ve used the FREE parts of this site now and have looked into tutoring, just haven’t had a need to take the plunge as I currently have a local speaking partner.)




Khatzumoto has been around for a bit but isn’t always easily found by new language learners.  While not a personally a big fan of his method, he does provide a lot of good resources and tips for learning Japanese.  He also shares a lot about how he personally learned Japanese- and who knows?  Maybe his strategies are right for you.  There’s a lot of information there, so pace yourself.  You can also follow him on twitter @ajatt.


Going to admit right now that I am not the best at navigating this site.  However, if you are familiar with video/torrent sites, you probably won’t have lots of trouble.  Basically it is a collection of Japanese videos, both anime and real action J-dramas.  Lots of listening practice!

Lingulift- Top 10 YouTube channels for learning Japanese

Some of these youtube channels are great; others are more culture driven and actually are produced in English.  Still, if you are looking for places to start, a list is always helpful.


Kanji and Kana learning games… need I say more?

Erin’s Challenge

This will be the site I play with FIRST this summer.  Video lessons for beginning Japanese- it looks kickass.  Check it out!



My current FAVORITE site.  Bill Vicars has provided what I’ve searched for over many YEARS- a quality way to learn ASL.  Most local library only offer dictionaries, which fails to expose one to the grammar and structure of ASL.  In addition, I don’t know anyone deaf or hard of hearing in my community to practice with.  This site has given me the tools I need to finally make the progress I’ve wanted for so long.

ASL with Rob Nielson

Some of this site is free, other portions require a fee.  However, quality ASL sites can be hard to find, so here is a good start for your sign language learning endeavors.

Start ASL

Another great starting point, with complimentary workbook.

Described and Captioned Media Program

So what’s this?  Only the motherload of ASL resources.  Consider it a combo of Netflix and Youtube for Deaf culture and media.  There are deaf movies, instructional ASL videos, and documentaries on Deaf culture all available to you.  You do have to sign up- if you are a student or teacher it’s free.


Spanish Proficiency Exercises

Here are some basic Spanish listening opportunities, divided up by level and complete with transcribed copy.  They have a lot of different countries and dialects represented.


This site is geared towards kids.  That said, kids’ materials sometimes jazz up an otherwise monotonous language study routine.  Flashcards can become dull and sometimes you just want something fun.   Why not ignite your inner child with a sing-a-long or storybook read aloud in your new target language?

Well, this is an incredibly long list but I hope you find it useful.  I’d be happy to share any resources any of you find particularly useful- just hit up my mailbox with links and notes so we can share the language love.  And as I’m unable to come up with a clever quote mashup with the words Language or Polyglot, here are some words some cats would like you to learn.


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/13/14.

FL vs. SL: What’s the deal with acronyms?

When one first enters the land of Polyglottia, and particularly if they venture into the forest of Linguistic Lollipops, one tends to find themselves confronted with a lot of acronyms and jargon that are unfamiliar.  Google helps with definitions but these are often lacking in terms of the connotations or extraneous uses of the words in these particular fields.  So it’s our job as long-term Polyglots and Linguists to help newbies learn these new terms.

I’m going to start with a favorite of mine.  I hear people using the terms FL or Foreign Language Education interchangeably with SL or Second Language education on a regular basis.  I completely understand why- on the surface, they appear synonymous.  But as a certified teacher of both forms, I can tell you they most certainly are not.  The difference is all in the environment.

FL (Foreign Language) Education:  This is the type most of us are familiar with.  Foreign Language Education is provided in a location where the target language isn’t a primary language in the area.  For example, when U.S. students take French, Spanish, German, Japanese, or any other language course in high school, this is foreign language education.  The environment does not provide ample opportunities to practice the target language.

SL (Second Language) Education: This is the type of language instruction most immigrant students receive (though not always well).  This is instruction in the majority language of an area (the primary or prestige language), which is used outside of the classroom walls.  Students are getting instruction to help increase the speed at which they learn the language, as well as to assist with grammatical issues.  Students are surrounded by the language in many areas outside of the classroom.  Study abroad situations also provide this to a degree.

Why is it important to understand the difference?

(Forgive me my bad punnery… I get it from my father.)

Well for one, each requires different things from instructors.

FL instruction generally requires some attention to motivation.  Even when a language is likely to help a student with career advancement or other future endeavors, this carrot at the end of a very long stick is seldom sufficient to keep kids learning.  Some will have an intrinsic love of languages and therefore not need their motivation supplemented.  But many will need incentive.  FL language classes require a bit of “edutainment”; that is, striving to make lessons (at least sometimes) fun and innovative.  Games are a big part of a good FL class.  FLclasses also benefit from limited (note: limited, not eliminated) use of the native language.  This is because the FL classroom is the only guaranteed exposure the students have to the language.  It’s also good for an instructor to compile resources (or have their students help compile them) to outside activities where the student CAN practice the language.  This could be youtube channels, ePal websites for e-mail pen pals, conversation clubs, and more.  FL instructors have the tough job of creating a mini world for their target language to exist in, and creating enough incentive for students to want to visit it.

SL instructors have a very different task.  They are helping their student navigate a strange language and often a strange culture.  For this reason, they often don’t have a perfectly set curriculum.  The students’ needs guide instruction far more than any textbook.  In my humble opinion, L1 use should not only exist in the SL classroom, it should be ENCOURAGED as needed.  Now, that doesn’t mean every SL instructor speaks all of their students’ languages.  If you are an ESL teacher in New York City, this is highly unlikely.  But the use of L1 materials can help speed up student learning, decrease stress thus allowing the brain to more rapidly access the L2, and increase students’ general content knowledge, which is key in typical schooling.  (I’m getting on a soapbox here, but it is downright criminal to metaphorically tie a student’s hand behind their back by forbidding use of their native tongue in a second language class.  Students are only being harmed by this process.)  Students have plentiful access to the second language outside of their classroom.  Motivation is seldom an issue- accomplishing daily tasks is generally motivation enough.  In addition, if the classroom is a safe haven for a student, they will be even more motivated to accept the new language and use it more frequently having had opportunities to practice with the teacher.

As a learner, here is what you need to know.  If you are in an FL environment and want to make the most of your language learning, you are going to have make the most of it.  My suggestions are:

  • Try to confine yourself to the L2 as much as possible in this environment, even if your peers aren’t.  If you have a grammar question or such and must ask it in the L1, do so.  But try to speak and write in your L2 as much as possible while there.
  • Seek outside opportunities.  Language clubs are becoming more popular and if your school/university doesn’t have one, there are probably people who would help you start one.  Even setting up a simple conversation hour once a month with a few like-minded friends can help.  I try to set up ASL coffees with friends and Japanese phone calls with a fellow learner once a month.
  • Find outside resources.  Movies are being dubbed in more languages than ever.  Youtube is full of music videos from around the world.  Palabea, LiveMocha, DuoLingo, and more can help you meet people to practice with and provide additional guides to learn from.
  • Set short-term and long-term goals.  Give yourself daily (or at least weekly) reasons to practice.  “I want to understand this anime” or “I want to write a silly note to my friends that my teacher can’t read” are great short-term goals.  (As a teacher, I should strongly discourage you from passing notes in class.  Yet I can’t help but smile as I remember writing notes in Braille to my friends hehe.) Long-term goals might be to take a trip to the country that speaks your language or make a Skype friend with someone from there.  Remember : “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.“ – Zig Ziglar


If you are an SL learner, whether by choice or circumstance, keep these ideas in mind:

  • Breathe.  NO ONE learns a language in a day.  Infants take 5 years to reach true fluency, and 8 years to speak “correctly” even in their native tongue.  It is okay that you feel overwhelmed, just don’t let it drown you.  Keep showing up and keep opening yourself to the new language around you.
  • Ask questions.  Most SL teachers are very student-driven.  They want to help you with the problems you are facing.  If a word boggles you or an expression seems odd, try to write it down and ask about it.
  • Practice with your friends.  As tempting as it is to always slip back into your L1 when with friends who speak it, try to allow some time to practice together.  Because you are all learning, you are less likely to make each other nervous and more likely to offer corrections with kindness.  You also may be able to offer quality explanations to each other as you know the specific differences between your native language and the target language.
  • Seek out language partners.  If you fear trying your new language out, see if there is any way to get connected with someone interested in learning your L1.  There usually are people interested, often those taking FL classes in the same school/university.  This levels the playing field for practice and generally, these people are much more understanding of language difficulties.  They know from experience it can be tough.
  • Spend a lot of time listening.  If speaking scares you, find environments where you can LISTEN to a lot of language.  Hang out in a coffee shop, go to a show, be around people without actually being part of the group.  Yes, it’s eavesdropping but let’s be honest, most of the stuff you’ll overhear is pretty mundane.  But it’s a lot of input and a good chance to get your ears comfortable with the language.
  • Start with routine tasks.  Buy a coffee from the same place every day.  Listen to others give their order and strive to perfect your exchange.  Ask directions from different people (even when you know where to go).   Make routine small talk with a neighbor.  These routines let you work on scripted language phrases that are useful in many situations.  They also become less stressful the more you do them.
  • Trust in the good in people.  This is a hard one.  I know it is.  Few of us LIKE to look like an idiot and many of us have experience at least one frustrated person with our language ignorance when we are first learning.  All I can say though is this: MOST people are kind and MOST people do want you to accomplish your task.  That cashier may look irritated, but she does want you to buy that soda.  (And she may not be irritated at you- minimum wage and on your feet all day is no picnic.)  If you are making an honest effort, trust that most people will make an honest effort to understand you.  And for those who don’t?


To hell with them, because well, they’re punks.   (I’d use foul language here, but some of my high school students have started reading this so I’m trying to keep it clean.)

Whatever your language environment, it IS up to you to make the most of it.  Embrace your situation and make it work for you.  Until next time… Polyglot Out!


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/06/14.

What is Comprehensible Input?

I originally had a link to an article on Everyday Language Learner called “25 Ways to Find or Create Comprehensible Input.”  Sadly, that article no longer appears to be available.  As I substitute, I offer a link to a podcast (with show notes) by Olly Richards (of I Will Teach You a Language) that gives 5 suggestions.

Image result for comprehensible input

When you are starting learning a language, one of the most important lessons you will learn is that you need to surround yourself (or at least occasionally dunk yourself into) comprehensible input. What does this fancy linguistic term mean?

       Coined by Krashen, comprehensible input is defined as just slightly above the level at which a listener can fully comprehend.  The formula given for this is often “i + 1”.  “i” represents the learner’s current ability; 1 represents that little bit extra.

In other words, to really up your listening ability, just immersing yourself in language content may not be the best all time strategy.  Yes, you will learn words, but you are also likely to get frustrated because of how little you comprehend. (Note- motivation and other familiarity factors do play a role here.  If you adore an anime and have seen it 1000 times in English, and then watch it in Japanese, even with it being well above a novice language level, you may easily pick up more simply by having the prior context.  These notes are more for brand new material which you do not have any emotional connection to.)

A better strategy is to find material that is just a bit above your level for regular practice.  I still advocate passively listening to the other materials, but give yourself something solid to work with regularly.

So that’s all I’ve got for tonight folks!  As always, thanks for following and reading my random linguistic ramblings.  Please feel free to hit up my inbox with any ideas, suggestions, or questions!

Peace out my Polyglot Peeps!
Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 04/28/14.