Cognitive & Behavioral Skills

And the implications for the foreign language classroom

Personal Experiences

Just as Dr. Kearins improved upon research and other tests to develop her own study; teachers can do the same. In my experience, teaching a foreign language and introducing students to a foreign culture is easier with some students than with others. My classroom is populated with native speakers (students who are raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speaks and understands the language and whose first language is the target language); heritage speakers (students who are raised in a home where a non-English language is spoken, who speak or merely understand the heritage language and who are to some degree bilingual in English and the target language); monolingual latinos (students who are raised in a home where they identify culturally with the target language culture and history, but have been raised in the U.S., only speak English and cannot speak or understand the target language. These students can feel anxiety in a foreign language class because they feel they are "expected" to already know the material); and a mix of White, African-American, and Native American children (students who have had little or no prior introduction to the target language or its cultures), all of whom have varying socioeconomic and emotional situations.

Within these groupings, there are students with academic modifications and behavioral modifications, students suffering from psychological issues like anorexia and cutting, as well as issues at home.

Not every child is starting out on the same playing field; but it is our job to help each student succeed.

Let’s take, for example, one of my monolingual students who is a cutter. Her time at home is spent between both parents’ homes and she is often put in the middle of fights. Her home life is not conducive for academic success.

During her homeroom period, this student comes to see me and we work through her homework together, but I also provide her with a space to vent. Before becoming aware of her situation, I just assumed that she wasn't doing her homework and she felt that she wasn't capable. By giving her a safe place to work, she has flourished and feels more capable in my class. Additionally, she is more confident and has opened up to friends and participates more during class.

Another more general example would be how I have modified my assessments. For quarter projects I allow for student choice by providing a topic and options for projects. All students focus on the topic but can go about explaining the topics in ways that are interesting or beneficial to them. Also, the student portfolio for my foreign language classes is divided into reading, writing, listening and speaking and different students perform better on different assessment types. I have found, however, that this depends more on the individual student than just if they are monolingual, bilingual or have other instructional or behavior modifications.

Finally, teaching heritage and native speakers in the same classroom as native-English speakers can be challenging. Like in Dr. Kearins’ study, Aboriginal children outperformed their white counterparts because the particular skill being tested also formed part of a survival skill. For heritage speakers, you can liken this to their need to learn and speak Spanish at home in order to be understood by family members and feel a part of their community. Because heritage speakers “lives” depend on this skill, their speaking ability is considerably higher than a non-heritage speaker’s speaking ability; but that doesn't necessarily mean that their writing or reading skills are.

In conclusion, a classroom is a very complicated society. In a foreign language classroom, you not only deal with 504s, IEPs and other modifications for academic success; you also have to modify the instruction for native and heritage speakers in a program more designed for monolingual students learning a second language.

Other research

A study by Dr. Michael Tallon (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin), an an Associate Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Department of Modern Languages at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, researched the possible complications of being a heritage speaker in a foreign language class.

Due to students’ prior exposure to, in this case, Spanish at home, Dr. Tallon researched how this can affect the student’s experience in the classroom? Do they suffer from anxiety more than their monolingual peers?

According to the study, monolingual students felt more anxiety about being in a foreign language class whereas heritage speakers experienced more testing anxiety. The research also concluded that heritage speakers taking a language class about their native language were doing so for different goals; not to learn the language, as is the case for monolingual students, but to learn more about the culture or to work on the literacy skills that are not practiced at home.

The study suggests that the needs of these students aren’t being met and that these students can suffer from a lack of motivation that can lead to lower scores.

I can see this in my own classes. I have several heritage speakers who struggle with written Spanish but have no problem maintaining a conversation. Unfortunately, we do not have a separate class for heritage speakers, we need to integrate their skills into the regular classroom. I do this by making them “language experts”, however, at the same time, heritage speakers have different needs than their monolingual peers.

Implications for educators ignoring this research

As educators, we can’t afford to ignore the research. Our job is to provide an education to all of our students, and we know that not all students are the same.

As far as the implications for educators ignoring this information is concerned, I’ll relate this back to foreign language educators.

Most foreign language classes are designed for monolingual students. Our textbook is written in English and all cultural information is presented as a compare and contrast between Hispanic culture and conventional American culture.

If I focus only on presenting information from the textbook and with one goal, the heritage speakers lose out and can feel like they are wasting their time. A heritage speaker might not need to learn how to say “apple” but could, instead, work on constructing a food pyramid with different foods or discuss how their diet can be considered a healthy diet or not and why, in Spanish.

In this way, native speakers are still on the same topic - food - but are applying their previous knowledge and working on skills that need to be learned.

There are several neuromyths about multilingualism that affect education. According to the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), three myths persist:

  • Myth 1: Two languages compete for resources.
  • Myth 2: Knowledge, acquired in one language, is not accessible in the other language.
  • Myth 3: The first language must be spoken well, before the language is learnt.
Students suffer from these myths all the time. In many schools, we are losing foreign language classes in elementary school. Some argue that it is too difficult for students to learn a language at the same time as learning other skills for the first time (Myth 1) or that one cannot learn addition in a foreign language and apply it in English or vice versa (Myth 2) or that early bilingualism leads to confusion about language in children (Myth 3). Students are actually missing out on the opportunities that bilingual education or foreign language classes can give them if they are started earlier.

I do know that there are bilingual schools for elementary students, however most of the students I see in high school have never taken a foreign language course before.

A. Straub

EDU 243