Monday 6 October 2014

Putting ourselves in their shoes

I thought it was about time that I learnt a new language and so enrolled in a Beginners' Polish class at my local college. Why Polish? Well, I'll admit I was torn between Italian and Polish but thought Polish would be more of a challenge (and I wasn't wrong!!) as Italian would be rather similar to the languages I already know (French, Spanish and Latin). Also, I knew there would be some Polish children at the school where I've started teaching.

As well as learning the actual language I am also gaining a fascinating insight into what it must be like for most of the children I teach. It has put me in their shoes and it's not as comfortable as I thought so I decided to share some of my experiences on my blog.

1) Will I catch up?

Unfortunately I missed the first week because I was ill.  This meant that I had to turn up to my first ever Polish lesson (week 2 of the course) knowing that I was already at least 2 hours behind everyone else. It made me very nervous.
At the beginning it was a little daunting as the tutor and other students were all chatting away in Polish but they were all very friendly and made me feel welcome. The tutor went easy on me as it was my first week. She also asked me to sit next to someone who was particularly good and knew what he was doing.

2) How do they know that? I thought this was for beginners?

As the class progressed I started to realise that some people knew more Polish than others and that they knew things that they hadn't been taught in week 1. After making a few inquiries I learnt that 3 guys had joined the class as they had Polish girlfriends. They had picked up a fair bit of vocabulary but not phrases. It unsettled me at first that we weren't all starting at the same place - it wasn't a 'level playing field' and it made me realise that this is the situation faced by many of the children in language classrooms everywhere.

3) ¿QuĂ©?
There were moments when I really hadn't got a clue what had been said. The first listening exercise sound like gobbledygook. Suddenly I heard a word (yes, just the one!) that I recognised. It was a fill the gap exercise and I had so many gaps I felt like giving up. Once the tutor went through the answers and then played the recording again it all fell into place like a jigsaw. Suddenly I could 'hear' the words. How many times have I told the children in my class not to give up and that it will come eventually once they learn to 'tune in'?
4) Performing a role play
At one point we were asked to practise and adapt a role play (from the text book) in pairs. At the end of the exercise the tutor asked who would like to perform theirs for the rest of the class. Not a single hand went up! Now that might be where an adult evening class differs from a KS2 class but even so, it reminded me of that sinking feeling when you are secretly thinking "I hope she doesn't ask me". I felt I was still a week 'behind' everyone else and so was more reluctant than I would normally have been to volunteer. Eventually we all had to do it and all got through it painlessly, but it still made me think how some of the children in my class must feel sometimes.
5) What on earth is she saying?
The thing I found hardest of all was grappling with the phonics of the new language. Polish has some sounds that do not exist in any of the languages I know and these took some getting used to. I kept wanting the tutor to repeat them so I knew that I had heard the sounds correctly. Even then, simply reproducing them was trickier than I had expected! In addition there are some bizarre (to a non-Polish speaker) phoneme-grapheme correspondences (sound-spelling links). Often 2 or 3 consonants combine to make a new sound, which seems so bear no resemblance to the letters themselves or the sound they normally make. It is going to take a while to learn them. Many of you will know my passion for phonics and that it is often as subject I speak on at local and national events. My experience at my first Polish lesson reinforced in my mind everything I have always believed about the teaching of phonics. It is vital to teach the key sounds of a language and their spelling links early on and, to begin with, the letter sounds are far more important than the letter names (alphabet).
I shall keep you posted how I get on....

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