June 17, 2013 | Irish

Engaging Students in Their Own Language-Learning

Some thoughts I have had about pedagogical techniques for foreign-language acquisition in schools.

Sometimes through this site I hear from foreign-language teachers. These encounters make me wonder about ways to engage students, especially more advanced high school students, in language-learning projects that would help connect the classroom to the world around them.

A New York City Public School

A New York City Public School

I think it would be fun to have students write blog entries or journalistic-style articles about local language-learning adventures in the vein of what I do here. Maybe once a month each student could write about the experience of applying their language skills somewhere outside the classroom, whether with a student they know who is a native speaker, with a senior citizen in a retirement home, in a deli, at a restaurant, in a café, at a cultural event they attend, watching a foreign film, or involving something else of their choosing.

From a practical standpoint, students in a class could be divided into fourths so that in any given week only a quarter of them are submitting entries/articles. They could each give a brief presentation on their experiences to the class (in the target language, if they are advanced enough), which would develop their language and public-speaking skills.

By the end of the year, the class could have a robust blog site documenting their language travels and growth over the previous nine or so months. Alternatively, all the pieces could be collected in print format into a bound volume for posterity.

This would be easier to do in New York than some other places, because it is usually a simple matter to travel without a car here and there are hundreds of languages floating around. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done in many other cities and towns, too!

One thing I have wondered about—and this I would leave up to teachers and administrators—is what the safety issues would be and how to manage them with teenagers. For sure I wouldn’t recommend that a teenager roam some of the neighborhoods I have explored without taking along an adult. But those could be fun family adventures, perhaps.

It is exciting to consider the accumulated experiences a group of New York City schoolkids studying, say, Spanish could accumulate over a school year. Such a project would offer them a combination of foreign-language experience, public-speaking experience, writing experience, and getting-out-in-the-world experience.

Younger groups with less language knowledge could still do something similar, just lower-key and more classroom-based, and with much more supervision. I love the idea. I don’t know whether it would be too much work for the teacher, but it seems to me to throw some of the labor onto the students, which can be a good thing from a pedagogical point of view anyway!

Comments (4)

Farschied • Posted on Tue, June 18, 2013 - 11:04 am EST

Hi Ellen

I have another question about your schedule or maybe my schedule!
By the way I know that my question is not really relevant to this topic but here is my question:

In my schedule I switch between languages every one week
(12 languages, I’ve add 7 more).

Do you think it’s OK? I mean from pedagogical point of view.

Another question:

Why do you have chosen some languages that the number of their speakers is less than 20 or 10 million people?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, June 18, 2013 - 4:56 pm EST

Hello, Farschied, and thank you for your questions!

First of all, I think you should do whatever gives you linguistic pleasure, but since you are asking me whether I think that’s a good learning strategy…well, it wouldn’t be optimal for the overwhelming majority of human beings. Switching around that much would hurt my brain, and I don’t get much of a hold on material after only one week with it, so I would have to keep starting over.

As I hope I have made clear, I didn’t set out originally to try out 17 languages here. I kept adding along the way, and I wasn’t guided by practical considerations. My path was not ideal for retention—but it was fun! I just kept getting tempted, as the months passed, by more and more languages!

It is THEIR fault, really, for being so alluring. 

So I guess my feeling is, going with what you really WANT to do is one of the most important aspects of a pedagogical strategy. Maybe there’s something about your brain and the way it works that will make you love your plan—and that will keep you working on it.

I don’t know how far into the schedule you are, but I expect you will know very, very quickly if it is something you like. In less than a month, probably. So you can just check it out for yourself, and change the plan if you don’t care for it!

In answer to your other question, as I proceeded through the project, I added some less widely spoken languages because I viewed them as historically important to New York. Those languages were Dutch, Irish, and Yiddish. Otherwise I tried to stick to major world languages. There are many advantages to focusing on widely spoken languages, but I am glad I added those three anyway, because they have been fascinating!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, June 18, 2013 - 5:48 pm EST

Readers: On a related subject, I just wrote a guest piece for the Global Language Project blog offering tips on how to keep children engaged in their foreign-language studies even when school is not in session. It is entitled “Urban Language Adventures: Summer in the City” and appears at

farschied • Posted on Wed, June 19, 2013 - 12:26 am EST

As always clear and complete.
Thank you very much for your answer.

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