Learning to ask hard questions in another language

Week four of my Spanish conversation class has just finished. I am teaching 2X a week vs 3X a week…my hope was that we would have more time on task if we met for an hour and 15 minutes (vs 3X a week @ 50 minutes). The class meets at night. I am still not sure how I feel about the night class aspect of it…I know some of my students are as tired as I am if not more so at 7:15 p.m. And of course I have already work a whole day in our language center, go home, fix dinner, and then whip back to work again. The jury is still out as to whether this is the optimal schedule or not.

The students, however, as always, are wonderful. Many different nationalities, ages, and interests. They have begun blogging and are becoming a bit more comfortable with the tools as well as the premise (and the promise??) behind using these tools. The blog is their portfolio..an example of what they have done and what they have thought about what they have done this far. At the midterm point they will be asked to pick out some artifacts from their blog/portfolio and explain how these things shows growth or progress towards their goals for this class. More on that later…

Feel free to click here to take a look at their work, add a comment, etc.

The purpose of this class is to prepare the students to live, work, travel in “el exterior,” or in a Spanish speaking country. They have 4 semesters of college-level Spanish under their belts (or the equivalent) and now they want to do something with it.

In class, we are tackling some big things. We saw the movie “Secuestro Express” and have been trying to come to grips with the fact that this unpleasant and quite violent reality (there have been over 1500 kidnappings in Venezuela since 1999) is not something we hear about when we hear about Venezuela in the news. Our media tends to fixate on Hugo Chavez and his friendship with Fidel, or when he calls our president unattractive names. There is a disconnect between what is going on and what our media sources are reporting.

Thanks to the wonders of technology we brought in Dafne from Caracas via Skype. It is one thing to watch a movie about kidnappings and urban violence… it is quite another to speak with someone who has experienced them personally (Dafne’s own sister was kidnapped and has suffered lasting psychological trauma as a result).

But how does one, as a non-native speaker of Spanish, enter into these conversations with native speakers about potentially painful and upsetting events with people we do not know well (or at all)? Is it possible? How do you move from a list of questions that need answers to seamless conversation in a second language? Can there be a give and a take in a conversation where the native speaker is just so excited that someone is actually expressing an interest in his/her world and its reality that you sometimes cannot get a word in edgewise? How do you find a place in a conversation to stop someone and say, um, could you repeat what you have been saying um because I have no idea what you have been saying for the last 10 minutes??

After we listened to/spoke with Dafne via Skype, I invited a real live speaker from Venezuela to come to class and entertain questions. The students asked really wonderful, sincere questions. But it was so hard…linguistically and intellectually. I felt for them, really, because I remember that moment in my educational experience when I suddenly realized that the world was no longer just black and white…rather, there were many many many shades and textures of gray out there.

In the interest of making sure that all sides of the story were available to my students, I gave them a link to an interview a student of mine did for our class 2 years ago…a Skype chat with someone who was markedly pro-Chavez. Definitely food for thought…and hooray for past years’ blogs helping the current students build on previous (archived) knowledge!

It is quite hard to formulate the questions, listen for the responses, and then ask follow up questions based upon the responses in a second language. But this group is getting there, and I am proud of their struggles thus far.

And hooray for one of my students who is going to a presentation being made by one of Obama’s people on his foreign policy plans on campus tomorrow. Her comment? “I know the presentation is about the Middle East, but I want to know what Obama knows about Venezuela.”

I love it when what they learn within the classroom helps to enrich what and how they learn outside of the classroom.

Barbara has been working for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for about 15 years. In addition to teaching Spanish she runs a somewhat unconventional language center. Prior to this adventure in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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  1. Education » Learning to ask hard questions in another language · February 29, 2008 Reply

    […] Language Lab Unleashed! wrote an interesting post today on Learning to ask hard questions in another languageHere’s a quick excerpt Week four of my Spanish conversation class has just finished. I am teaching 2X a week vs 3X a week…my hope was that we would have more time on task if we met for an hour and 15 minutes (vs 3X a week @ 50 minutes). The class meets at night. I am still not sure how I feel about the night class aspect of it…I know some of my students are as tired as I am if not more so at 7:15 p.m. And of course I have already work a whole day in our language center, go home, fix dinner, and then whip back to work […]

  2. Learn Spanish - Your Guide to Learning Spanish » Learning to ask hard questions in another language · February 29, 2008 Reply

    […] to ask hard questions in another language Home Where They Belong… – Homeschool Blogger wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptLearning to ask hard questions in […]

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