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An innovative language acquisition class sets Conn students loose on a New London magnet school.
By Edward Weinman
terling Gillette wants to be a scientist when he grows up. The 8-year old, who already understands the survival skills of bacteria, curiously wonders about the comet that killed the dinosaurs.
“I want to see what really caused that comet to hit the planet we live on, because you’d think it would have wiped out everything, but something had to survive,” he ponders.
Sterling has a tuft of messy hair and a mischievous smile. He appears to be a typical third grader. However, he attends the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London, and when he tells you his favorite color is red, he proudly speaks it in Russian.
Sterling takes Russian in the world languages program, a six-week, after-school program that the RMMS runs in conjunction with Connecticut College. Sterling is one of 70 elementary students learning languages such as Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and French. The rub is that 18 Connecticut College students team-teach the 45-minute classes.
For five of these students, the RMMS program makes up the practicum portion of their language acquisition course, taught by Petko Ivanov, lecturer in Slavic studies. In his course, students learn the theories behind how one acquires a second language, and then they test these theories at the magnet school.
Kaitlin Cunningham ’16 is in Ivanov’s class. She began studying Russian at Conn because of her interest in Russian history. After her study-away program in Moscow, she’s now considered “advanced,” with only “superior” to go before her mastery of Russian is at the “native” level.
“The reason I took [Ivanov’s] class was for this teaching aspect,” Cunningham says. “But it’s a super interesting classroom experience as well, learning how we learn second languages. It’s a mentally stimulating experience.”
Cunningham is “really into” learning languages. It’s an entry point through which one can better understand a different culture, a people, especially during the era of globalization.
“I don’t think you can really understand other people or other cultures unless you speak their language or know a little bit about their language. A lot of culture is coded in a language,” she argues.
“It’s exciting that kids aren’t just going to keep speaking English as the world globalizes and English becomes a global language. Kids still want to learn other languages and use them when they become adults.”
Sterling, who’s wearing a blue shirt with neon-green letters spelling out “Concrete Warrior,” isn’t thinking about globalization. To him, Cunningham is known as “Mrs. Kaitlin,” one of his favorite teachers. A few weeks into the class he already has an easy rapport with Mrs. Kaitlin. When she speaks Russian to him, asking him to say his name, he takes a moment to collect his thoughts, and responds in Russian.
Then they slap hands. And Sterling smiles, proudly.
“You can see how children are like sponges. You say something once and they’ll pick up on it,” Cunningham says.
The world is, as Cunningham says, becoming more globalized; English is becoming the language of the world, so why should grade-school kids bother learning another language?
“Every different language is a window to another world,” Ivanov says.
With his gray beard and disheveled appearance, Ivanov looks like a member of the intelligentsia. By all accounts, the Bulgarian-born professor is a language rock star, having taught Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California—the place where those in the Department of Defense and intelligence services (spies) immerse themselves in the languages of hotspots around the globe.
Ivanov jokes, “Russian is a disease. Once you got it, it stays with you for life.” By that he means learning another language becomes part of your identity.
“My role is to diagnose this disease,” he says. “Just being exposed to another language is a cultural experience. It’s multiculturalism in action. Being exposed to differences.”
Both the Conn and the RMMS students are contracting this disease, but it’s a healthy ailment to catch: kids who learn, or are learning, a second language are likely to have higher academic success throughout school and increase their cognitive-based learning skills; studying a second language activates components of the brain responsible for verbal and written communication, reasoning, thinking and numeric understanding; language acquisition increases critical-thinking skills, creativity and flexibility of mind in young children; and students taking language classes out-score their peers in verbal and math sections of standardized tests.
“Bilingualism makes you smarter,” says Andrea Lanoux, associate professor of Slavic studies and chair of the Slavic studies department.
“Business, government, education, science—these spheres are all globalized. Every student therefore should be able to communicate with someone from another culture.”
For Lanoux, who developed the world languages program, the benefits of learning a second language are so great that she contends we as a society are failing kids who are not offered the opportunity to take second-language classes. As it stands, kids who enroll in private schools have this opportunity whereas most children in underserved communities do not.
It’s why the College’s program at the RMMS is so valuable. It exposes primary-school kids to the sounds of a foreign language, providing these 70 participating students the chance to benefit from language acquisition.
“Why should only private-school students have access to these languages?” Lanoux asks. “[Access to language classes] is a social justice issue.”
Inside, Outside Circle
It’s not only the RMMS kids who benefit. The Conn students who volunteer learn, obviously, valuable teaching skills. For some, the program becomes a pathway towards a new career trajectory.
“They are learning to teach; they are learning behavioral management of kids. And how much these kids can learn,” says Sue Goldstein, a bilingual teacher who has worked at the magnet school for going on two decades. Goldstein helps run the world languages program.
“At first, the college students tend to present too much information, but they quickly learn what the children can absorb in one session.”
Conn students are also introduced to the game Inside, Outside Circle. At a debrief session during the second week of classes, the group of volunteer teachers gather in the RMMS faculty lounge, and Goldstein demonstrates the game in which students form two concentric circles and exchange information with a partner until the teacher signals the outer circle to move in one direction, giving each student a new peer to talk to. It’s a tool teachers use to ensure all students, even those who normally wouldn’t talk, interact and become involved in a lesson.
Aside from a greater understanding of pedagogy and discovering the universal question all teachers struggle with, how to differentiate their instruction for the kids who learn quickly versus those who learn at a crawl, Ivanov’s students discover more about themselves by taking his language acquisition course.
“The program builds an identity for the students. I see our Russian students or French students speaking the target language amongst themselves outside the classroom,” Ivanov says.
“This builds a togetherness.”
Language is not just, as Ivanov says, a window to another world. It’s also a porthole into one’s own personality. His students are gaining a deeper understanding of themselves, he believes, which is why he has them write autobiographies about their lifetime experiences as learners of another language.
“You see yourself from a different perspective by teaching language. Through the class and writing an autobiography on the journey of learning the language you also start to know yourself better.”
The monolingual frame of mind
Caitlin Flohr ’19 doesn’t speak fluent Chinese. It might seem counterintuitive, then, that the East Asian languages and culture major stands in a classroom, before a group of kids, directing a Chinese lesson. Not so, says Ivanov.
While not fluent, “anyone teaching at the RMMS has linguistic skills sufficient to transmit introductory foreign language knowledge to novices. I should also note that at the RMMS, learning is mutual, since our students learn better the target language by teaching it,” Ivanov says.
Like Flohr, some of the other Conn students lack fluency in the target language they teach. A lack of fluency, though, is not a hindrance because the RMMS kids are learning just a handful of words (“introductory foreign language knowledge”): colors, days of the week, personal details about pets, siblings or favorite activities.
Acquiring about a few dozen words in a target language over six weeks of classes. What’s the value?
“Kids come out of the program saying they can speak Chinese even if they only know a few words,” says Hugh Birdsall, the certified ESOL teacher for RMMS grades 2-5. ESOL is designed to support English language learners in their acquisition of English and in their educational development.
“This program builds their self-esteem. And self-esteem is everything.”
It’s also important to note that the goal of the world languages program is not teaching fluency to these primary- school kids. It’s an exposure program, one that helps to develop cultural sensitivity, to help kids start down the road towards becoming global citizens.
“Even the most elementary exposure to foreign languages makes diversity visible (and audible) to the kids and stimulates their linguistic curiosity that later on can—and very often does—become a passion for languages,” Ivanov says.
“It’s not just about vocabulary, but about initiation into intercultural competence and, most importantly, getting out of the monolingual frame of mind.”
Opening a kid’s ears
Flohr has a couple of ringers in her classroom. Ten-year old Ronan Allison and his younger brother, Malloch, who is eight, can bail out Flohr if she stumbles. Their mother is Chinese, and they have grown up hearing the language.
“When the rest of the class doesn’t understand, Ronan and Malloch help their peers,” Flohr says. “They go ahead and answer a question, and then the other students hear the language and start to get the hang of it.”Malloch isn’t always impressed with the classes. “Sometimes it can be boring, but other parts are fun. Like when we did colors. It was fun because some of the colors I forgot.”
While Malloch’s favorite part of the class is “playing the games,” his older brother Ronan feels good about his knowledge base, even if he doesn’t reveal any true emotion when talking about his favorite part of the class. “I know most of the stuff we’re doing,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Flohr says the brothers’ nonchalant answers belie how much they truly enjoy the class.
“They have amazing energy. When they know an answer, they say, ‘Oh, yeah!’ They’re really excited about the class and that helps push it off on the other kids.”
This excitement is derived from an ownership the brothers feel about their culture, which other native speakers also experience in the program. They hear their native language being taught and witness their peers’ excitement over learning a few words. This subscribes a higher value to their cultural identity they might not otherwise have.
Lanoux strongly believes that the world languages program breaks down stereotypes, regardless of how many words a child acquires.
“The ears of these kids are being opened to different cultures,” she says.
“Learning a language—bits of a language—helps children learn empathy. They learn the ability to see someone from another point of view. This is crucial for the young.”