Today is my first day back at school after the summer break and I’m closer than ever before to simply starting with my new bilingual first year classes in English, with none of the pupils’ native Dutch thrown in to make it easier for them. I describe them as a ‘bilingual classes’ but they aren’t really, or at least not yet. They are just starting down the language learning road. Virtually all have a smattering of English already, picked up from tv, films, music and the Internet. Normally the first weeks of the school year are for me and my first year pupils, sessions of constant switching between English and Dutch. So what has brought me to this point where I think I should just start in English and not offer a Dutch language back-up or safety net?
For the last three years I’ve been doing a workshop at a nearby school (where I don’t normally teach) that also has a bilingual stream. I am hired in for an intensive day of language and art activities that results in a presentation for parents.
This workshop is also done with first year pupils (aged 12), just beginning their bilingual education. They are actually beginning with a lot of new things at once, it’s a big week. A new school, many new friends, new teachers, a new experience of subjects being taught as separate hours in a timetable and…….a new language of instruction. Could we make it a more intimidating and difficult step for a twelve year old I sometimes wonder.
For the pupils I worked with earlier in the week it was the start of just the second week at their new school, and the second week of wrestling with their new language of communication. It’s also been a week and one day of a huge number of new impressions and challenges for them.
Today was just such an example, verbal word games, poetry, describing activities, group communication games, drawing and illustration, all in a day long project, lead by someone they had never seen before. In short, variation ruled the day as we bounced from one assignment to the next. Variation that is, mixed with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is one of my strong points, and today it was greeted by the enthusiasm of the pupils.
(Click here for examples of the sort of lesson assignments I make use of)
As a visitor to the school I can pretend for a day that I don’t speak any Dutch, and so force them to do all their communication in English. This way I can usurp the natural hierarchy of language in a typical Dutch school. They struggle to communicate with me in English because that is the only way it’s going to work. Rather like when you are on holiday abroad. Just like I was in France during the summer. I struggled to make use of my minimal knowledge of the French language when it was necessary. Yes it was easier of course to leave it to my wife to communicate with the locals with her much superior knowledge of the French language, but the question is, is my French ever going to improve that way?
I don’t think that I’m advocating that all my bilingual colleagues take such a hard line and aggressive language approach. I can imagine in some subject areas it could be more problematic if English was the only language used right from the beginning. But so much of my subject in the art room has the back-up of visual elements, demonstrations and images to support to aid understanding. My workshop earlier in the week was a demonstration of just how far children are able to come when thrown in at the language deep end. It’s all about listening hard, helping each other out when they don’t understand or miss a bit. But above all, and I posted about this a year ago (Learning through not understanding), keeping them stretching and reaching beyond the capabilities that they think they have.