This trip went beyond what I could have imagined three weeks ago. We truly were immersed in the experience with language and culture.
In this learning experience immersion was the key to my progression in Spanish. Probably the most frustrating but motivating aspect of my trip was my home-stays. There, especially during my second home-stay, I was completely immersed in Spanish. Karla and Erick spoke no English and when we watched television together it was all in Spanish. No English subtitles. I was motivated by this. I did not want to sit in silence or avoid watching the news on TV because I didn't understand it. These would have been the easy things to do. It was certainly easier to avoid conversations in Spanish. But I realized how much I would be missing and, on this trip, I had adopted a “Why Not?” attitude. Why not try new things or push myself to know more? Immersion created motivation for me.
For ELL children Immersion can be a scary thing. I think the key to success for all language learners is for the level of Immersion to be what is right for them. We had English speaking guides and chaperones so our level of immersion, outside our home-stays, was not high. It is important not to allow the level to be too easy, but to not discourage with a level of immersion which is too high.
Costa Rica offered many opportunities of engagement. The peoples, culture, land and government created interest for me. I could learn only so much from the few English speakers I knew. It was a benefit for me to be able to talk in Spanish to others in order to learn more. These topics, and the places we visited, really drew me in and kept me engaged and motivated.
Engagement is sometimes overlooked in the grand scheme of things. But it is important to get kids hooked on what is to come. If they are disinterested, they won't bother to learn. To draw students in, to make the lesson mean something to them, is a battle in itself and then the information comes. Without the engagement the information is null and time has been wasted. Engagement is necessary for rich learning to occur.
In our trip I had many opportunities to observe Spanish models. My teachers were the most obvious, and would repeat demonstrations as necessary. I was also provided great models in my host families. But I most appreciated the model I was provided in Sonia, our chaperone from CPI. She was recently a student at CPI a total of three months. Because of this, she was able to help us navigate Costa Rica and spoke for us anytime it was needed. Watching her successes (and occasional struggles) was important in my own Spanish production.
Reflecting to ELLs, they too benefit from guides or models. These models need not be only teachers and family members. Peer support and demonstration can be an ELLs best tool. As I've mentioned before, group work can be irreplaceable for a struggling language learner.
As I speak with others about my trip, they always ask if I stayed with other students in the Costa Rican homes and also how our group improved in our Spanish speaking. Our home-stays were all separate and I think this created a need for personal responsibility on diverse levels for all of us. We were each responsible for our family experiences. We determined our own home-stay environment. There was not a friend to look to. Our drive for a relationship with our families determined how this situation benefited us. We could use the opportunity to learn more, or keep to ourselves and miss out. Spanish improvement differed between us but it was directly related to our own work, our own goals. Our teachers were not going to force us to learn. It was our responsibility to fulfill our learning as we saw to. No one was holding our hand to complete homework or learn vocabulary. In this way, we were given complete responsibility over our own learning.
Students of a new language are given the same kind of responsibilities. They will choose how much they will learn and often they choose the minimum. They take responsibility for obtaining enough to “get by” and disregard the rest. For this reason it is important for students to have Engaging, motivating, meaningful situations to encourage them and take on more.
Use in Authentic Situations
For three weeks I was in an authentic situation. I was given new situations in which to use what I learned every day. I felt compelled to use my Spanish to do more, learn more, and see more. Another question I am asked is: Was there a bad part of the trip? Yes, I tell them, the bad part was that I didn't know more Spanish so I could learn more about the Costa Rican culture from the people. I was being handed these amazing opportunities in environments I was interested in and I needed to use my Spanish. Where before I would try not to use this language, in these situations, where use was almost required, I wished for more. Something which motivated me to keep studying and learning.
That is the type of situations our ELL students need to be in. The ones where they wish for more language, therefore creating motivation. These situations should also allow for use of what they do know, providing a place to build confidence
As I was learning Spanish, approximations were absolutely necessary. In our classes, I made several attempts which I knew may not have been totally correct. Had I simply sat there and not risked the mistakes, I never would have learned from my teachers' corrections. I was often excited by the approximations I'd make which turned out to be correct when I had assumed them to be wrong.
Students should be encouraged to take risks and make approximations. These attempts can allow them to display all they know, even if not completely correct. This is important for all students, ELL or not. But a key to this is safe environments and Trust.
An addition to the eight of Cambourne's Conditions of Learning, Trust is important for the other conditions to be successful. If students do not feel a personal connection to their teachers or within the classroom, they will not take risks, or become engaged. In my own learning I found it easies to take risks with my teachers because I felt they fully supported me and wanted me to succeed. I had this support at “home” as well, in the form of my Mama Ticas. I was more nervous to make approximations with them but they were happy to support and help me grow.
I had expectations coming from all around me. My home-stay family expected me to be learning more at school. They challenged me each day to understand more and speak more. My fellow students expected me to grow and display students with them. I was one of the students who became a reference tool for some students. My Spanish teachers expected a motivation in me since I had traveled so far to study there. I had expectations from back home from my family and husband, who were sure I'd be able to come back and teach them Spanish. These expectations can be a lot to juggle, in addition, of course, to the expectations I had for myself. One of which was that I would meet everyone else's expectations. These drove me to improved and I wanted to know more, do more and take advantage of a situation where I had so many who cared enough to challenge me with their expectations.
Students will also be challenged this way, and may have just as many people with expectations for them. Having a safe school environment will help them strive for these goals while avoiding a stressful learning situation.
When learning a new language, Feedback in authentic situations will usually be instantaneous. When I used my Spanish, I received instant feedback about my performance. Usually this was in the form of a reply, telling me I'd successfully conveyed my point, or in a curious look of confusion, telling me I'd made some sort of mistake. I was lucky to receive supportive and critical assessments of my Spanish from my teachers.
Feedback is important for all students, and, especially in the case of ELLs, feedback should be supportive. This type of feedback may not only come from their teachers. Other students can play an important part in an ELL's progression and they can provide constructive feedback as well.
I had many wonderful experiences in Costa Rica. The one that has remained in my thoughts most is our visit to La Carpio. I have gained from this experience a richer perspective on poverty and the resilience of children. I have a greater understanding of the lengths parents will go to in order to provide, for their children, a better chance. I also saw there the amazing affect one woman can have in a community. Gail has made such a difference for the people of La Carpio. I think about teachers who say they cannot make a difference on their own, but this woman has persevered and does not let anything hold her and her projects back. I will never forget that place or her work.
As for myself, I see a change in my confidence and understanding of learning. Although I've been in college for the past 3 years, I've never had such an intense learning situation as this one was, where I was able to really evaluate myself and the way I learned. I see much clearer now what my methods classes have been trying to portray because I was able to be on the learner side for a moment. As I said before, I adopted a “Why not?” attitude on this trip. I think this attitude, in some sense, will remain with me. I have gained confidence because of this attitude and have begun to trust myself and my decisions. As the Costa Ricans say: ¡Pura Vida!
This trip was a success. I learned more than I ever imagined I could in just 3 weeks. I found myself immersed in a place I didn't know, with people I'd never met who spoke a language I'd barely studied.. and I succeeded. I gained more than I could ever describe in words, Spanish or not.