Who Determines What is Worth Learning in the Minority Language Classroom?
My reflections for this post have focused around my milieu of teaching minority languages such as American Sign Language, Hungarian, Spanish, or sign languages from other countries.
Who Determines What is Worth Learning?
The first curricular issue is summed up in a single question: “Who determines what is worth learning?” UNESCO International Bureau of Education (2016) points out that there are a myriad of stakeholders behind a curriculum: teachers, school administration, employers, higher educational institutions, communities, governments, as well as the students and their families (p. 14). Each of these entities have specific goals in mind, goals that may be at odds with each other.
When it comes to language learning, who determines what is valuable and meaningful for students to learn in the language classroom? Governmental priorities may focus on students testing well, thus grammar, vocabulary, and conjugations (all easy-to-grade, easy-to-measure concepts) are promoted. Higher educational institutions may be looking for students who excel in written language to identify future translators. Teachers may prioritize a homogenous curriculum so they can assess if all of their students have reached the teacher’s predetermined goals.
For me, helping students communicate and connect in their new language is the goal. My curriculum has to be flexible enough that students can learn what they need to be able to create friendships, nurture relationships, convey their needs, meet and address others’ needs. As I mentioned in this week’s written assignment, the students themselves determine what is meaningful to learn in their new language.
In my experience in teaching American Sign Language (and other minority languages), I have found predetermined vocabulary lists to be largely unhelpful and difficult for students to retain. For this reason, I present a general situation like “your work” or “going to the store” and have students write up their own vocabulary lists. If a student works at a veterinarian’s office, their list would include: pet, vaccinated, neutered, spayed, etc. (Words that are essential for them to learn but would never show up on a classmate’s vocab list who works at McDonald’s.) (Yarbro, 2021).
Like defined in this week’s reading by IGI Global (n-d), an element of curriculum is to establish a “quality relationship between what is learnt and what operates outside the school.”
Language Curricula Are Inflexible and Stagnant
The second curriculum issue is along the same lines as the first: too often language curricula are inflexible and stagnant. Again, with an undue emphasis in the language classroom on grammar, standardized vocabulary lists, and conjugations, we lose the essence of what makes language a living thing. We cut out those who speak the language, the community built around the language, and the deeper reasons for learning language: to communicate and connect.
While taking an Arabic class in college, nearly all of my fellow classmates were learning the language to either (1) communicate with family or friends who spoke Arabic, or (2) they were in the military and would be deployed soon. Unfortunately, instead of building on these pre-existing, meaningful reasons for learning, our Arabic teacher focused our entire course on writing Arabic script. Very little time was spent on practicing how to say the words and not a moment of class was used for communication. What a missed opportunity!
I have found that a flexible curriculum molds into a student’s language goals. For most minority language classrooms, the students are not studying the language to become expert translators of the language. For this reason, our curricula need to adapt and focus on communication with our students’ minority-language speaking classmates and local minority language communities. (Plus, I have found that if a student learns to love the language during my course and they decide they want to become an interpreter, they will learn whatever technical elements of the language they need down the road because they have an unsquelched passion for the language. Focusing on communication first in no way derails a passionate student from learning grammar, conjugations, etc.)
When I consider the impact curriculum has on a student’s love and ability to learn language, I am frustrated by the easy-to-test, easy-to-measure approach guiding most language curricula in the United States. This is one of the main reasons for my taking this course, to further explore ways to create language learning curricula that are effective and meaningful.
IGI Global. What is Curriculum? (n.d.). https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/curriculum/6468
UNESCO International Bureau of Education (UNESCO-IBE). (2016). What makes a quality curriculum? Current and Critical Issues in Curriculum and Learning (2), pp.1-41. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002439/243975e.pdf
Yarbro, D. (2021). What are Effective Methods to Make Learning Relatable for Language Students?