Monday, February 6, 2012

Foreign Language vs. Second Language Contexts

Just kidding about the Snow Penguins :)
I studied Spanish in the foreign language context for 7 years. During this study, my teachers and all my classmates spoke English for their daily communication needs, and Spanish was the "extra" language on the side. After studying Spanish, I spent my time studying language teaching with the goal of teaching English as a second language in the US. And naturally, I thought, that as a language learner, I would have more insight into the needs and goals of my students. I learned a foreign language. I know the frustrations involved with not remembering vocabulary and the embarrassment of having to speak in front of classmates.

I live in Germany now, and two weeks ago, I began an intensive German course, studying German in the second language context. In this class, almost none of my classmates speak English, and the teacher's English level is high enough that if I am confused about something, I can ask in English and she can understand and explain in German. German is the language around me. It is the only way to communicate with my classmates. I look around the room, and I see tons of language-to-language dictionaries, but instead of German-English, they are German-Turkish, German-Spanish, German-Portuguese, German-Russian, German-Romanian, etc.

There is a huge difference between the second language context and the foreign language context. My experience with Spanish is similar to the experience of my German students learning English. The experience that I am having now as a learner, however, is probably closer to the experience of my earlier classes, where the students were learning English in the US. There is a new level of stress and different style of trying to understand. All this to say that it has become painfully clear to me that just learning a language in one context doesn't necessarily mean that you can identify with the needs of your students in another context.