Response to Clark (1997): Developing Voices

This post is from a course that I took. I had to make blog posts for the course and I decided to move the posts over here when the course finished.

Clark, J. (1997). Developing voices. Keynote address delivered at the AFMLTA Conference, Hobart.

I think the most important line in this text is, “If there is nothing to make sense of, no reality worth representing, and no user of the second language with whom to share one’s thoughts and feelings, then there is no earthly reason for learning a second language” (p. 15).

I learned French in school, and I really enjoyed it, but I thought of it as a mostly intellectual pursuit. I memorized the new vocabulary and grammar points that were given to me and spat them out at the right times on tests. As long as the tests were limited to what we had just studied (even studied within that year), I could get very high marks. I never, however, developed the ability to have a proper conversation in French.

My studies in French also helped my understanding of English. My high school had a Grade 10 class that was entirely focused on English grammar. I loved it, and I found that my French studies enhanced my learning in that class.

So, I wouldn’t say there is no reason at all to learn a language if you don’t have a reason to use it and someone to use it with, but it does seem like a fairly decent waste of time if you don’t at least develop minimal fluency from all the effort.

The trick is finding ways to provide an environment in the classroom where students are challenged to make sense of the language and use it to represent reality. Both Scarino (1999) and Orton (1997) touch on the idea of not merely having students pretend to buy a train ticket.

I learned Japanese mainly in Japan. I lived in a very small town and there were no other English-speakers for me to converse with, so I had very high motivation to learn the language. I was working at a school where all of the rest of the staff were Japanese and every single transaction around me happened in Japanese, so I was quite determined to learn as much as I could in order to feel like I could contribute to the school community as a “full person”.

I would like to find ways to bring that kind of motivation to my students. In my unit plan as a part of my first assessment in this subject, I tried to create this kind of experience by giving students a picture of an actual menu in Japanese as a kind of “provocation” to stimulate them to want to find out what was written on it. I think that perhaps using manga or funny Japanese game shows might also help to motivate students to want to understand real Japanese in context. I will try to think of more ways to make this happen.

It can be difficult to create experiences for students to interact with people who speak the target language. Penpal arrangements can be made, but they take quite a bit of work to keep up, and probably don’t often end up with creating long-lasting friendships. With the advent of the internet, however, there is the possibility of having students participate in online forums, Facebook, or Twitter in the target language. That could certainly be motivating for certain students.