This post is inspired by a number of recent conversations in which my interlocutors spoke disparagingly about the first-semester language classroom. Their comments were not mean-spirited. In fact, most of my interlocutors were close friends and colleagues who care deeply and seriously about language learning and culture studies. But their assessment seemed to me to be a symptom of how language learning is perceived broadly, how such perception shapes the way we discuss language learning, and points to broader implications about the state of language learning in North America.
In fact, my interlocutors did not perceive to be talking disparagingly about the first semester when they suggested that on its own it is a rather “useless” course which only matters as a stepping stone toward proficiency and bears no merit of its own. The context for this unfortunate framing of the first-semester language classroom is the following: a discussion about language and culture studies enrollments at the upper division. My interlocutors maintained that students who seek to fulfill an elective requirement by enrolling in one semester of language or students in similar situations, who are for various reasons prevented from a multi-semester commitment to language learning, simply “get nothing out of one semester of German.” The conversations in all instances were expanded to include the language requirement on the whole, which they see as nearly useless on its own without a student’s full commitment to a multi-year program of study leading to advanced proficiency (and a major in German).
In what follows, I want to elaborate on points I made (and those I hoped to make but did not) in personal conversations with my interlocutors about the importance of the first-semester language course (and by extension the first or the first two years of language learning). Some of the reflections below are not novel insights: scholars in language pedagogy, SLA, and curriculum design, as well as advocates for language and culture studies, have long made the point that language learning is more than learning vocabulary and linguistic structures to organize it. What I think is usually overlooked by even the most ardent advocates for language learning in North America and beyond are the parts outlining the value of the first semester language class in its own right, without recourse or expectations for what function it serves in preparing students for subsequent courses in the language and culture studies program.
I. The Joy and Pain in Language Learning
I want to begin with my own experience with language learning. I was 8 years old when my family fled the Balkan Wars. We moved to Wiesbaden, Germany, and lived there in a refugee settlement. My mother took me to the dentist, because I had an excruciating tooth ache. Neither of us spoke German beyond a few words we picked up by hearing them spoken by others. Nonetheless, the receptionist somehow understood what the issue was (i.e., the child is in pain) and I was soon thereafter in the dentist’s chair.
I recall the dentist asking me one question after the other. Each time a word came out of his mouth I felt the anxiety crushing on my chest. At one point he started miming what he wanted me to do. He opened the mouth and intimated he wanted me to open mine. Initially, the process was gentle. But he quickly became aggravated by it. The last I recall is that he must have asked me to tilt my head. When I failed to do as requested, he violently moved it for me. I could see my mother’s eyes water from the corner of my own eye.
To this day, I’m terrified of dentist offices. For a long time after this incident I also feared speaking, communicating, and trying to connect with others. Especially in German. It was only with others like me or, to put it more precisely, those in similar linguistics situations, that I slowly developed a sense of relative comfort with language. These other kids were likewise from the Balkans or were migrants from other countries. German was not our only common language: we very slowly learned to share Bosnian, Albanian, and Afghani/Pashto with some German sprinkled here and there. In this playful setting, we would all fall into silence when what we perceived to be a German speaker stumbled upon our conversations in the park or the yard of the community in which we lived. He, too, might aggressively touch and move our bodies if we did not do what he wanted. If a prompt did not yield what it intended. Language was joyous and painful in these settings; affirmative and violating.
When I taught my first German 101 course as a grad student in my first semester in the MA program, I never expected these affirmative/traumatic relations to language to resurface in the constellation they did. The first week of instruction followed a familiar model for those of us who teach language courses: we use a common set of practices—including slow speech, extensive repetition, use of images, body movements—by which to conduct class entirely in the “target language” (a term I hate) in order to elicit language use and comprehension from students. Following the first few class sessions students allegedly “get used” to the process. But what of the moment of terror that registers in their expression when prompted to enter a conversation in a language they don’t yet know? What of the pain and violence this might exasperate for people who, like me, have a contested relationship with language? With being prompted to do something and not fully trusting that what one is doing corresponds to what is expected?
The first few days after teaching my first class I did not sleep. Part of the reason was the nervousness of being a first-time college instructor. The other part was struggling with the pain I possibly inflicted on my students. To be sure, I don’t want to equivocate refugee trauma with college language learning. Asking a student to spell their name is not violating the body of an 8-year-old child. But what I do want to do is foreground and recognize the deeply unsettling experience that language learning is for students in our classes. That the initial devastation brought on by the mistrust of one’s limits of linguistic capacity is not insignificant in shaping the epistemic and affective experience of the first-semester language classroom. All that follows this trauma for students—i.e., the linguistic accomplishments in whatever form they may take—are nothing short of miracles for me. They are, I believe, also the reason why so many of us adore the first-semester language classroom. Because students in it come to negotiate so much in the spirit of trying to connect to one another and us.
The creative, intellectual, and emotional energy dispensed and at work in this class is astonishing. Co-creating patterns by which to relate to others is no small feat in the face of unfamiliar epistemologies. In the first semester class, we see students question so much about their world in meeting and staying with a handful of words they recently discovered. They move from excruciating trauma to creative capacity quickly. This does not mean they overcome one in order to get to the other. Rather, students acknowledge the negative affect structuring part of their experience through interaction, listening, studying the embodiment of language as it registers in their interlocutors, etc. In creatively stringing a few words together—through painstaking negotiation with an interlocutor—they begin shaping new worlds they never anticipated shaping before. In bringing vocabulary from one linguistic context in close proximity to another through a marvelous process of translanguaging, they cross more boundaries than imagined. In fact, they cross more boundaries than some of the prompts we generate or facilitate intended.
In their relation to the class, students face the pleasure and perils of entering community. For many, the very notion of exchange is traumatizing. They—like so many of us—prefer to be left alone, to sit, listen and thereby learn. From the first day in our beginner’s language class, they begin the process of negotiation: of recognizing the challenges in being asked to dispense an exuberant amount of the limited social energy they reserve in the service of the classroom and the complex array of relations that structure a cohort as small as 15 students. Over the course of the first five weeks, this negotiation progresses quite quickly and is a bumpy ride. For some, it yields close friendships (how many of us know students who met in our courses and stayed friends for years thereafter?!). For others, this process is overwhelming.
This is why it is so incredibly violent and disappointing to introduce a shitty lesson about a simplified understanding of “German traditions” amidst these complex operations and processes that are excruciatingly demanding on our students. That is, on our students who are engaging in higher order thinking and processing, emotional negotiating, etc. That students are able to and in fact improve upon negotiating so many demanding operations should prompt us not to offend them with reductionist understandings of culture.
II. OMG, So Over Proficiency
Studying the presentism governing each session in a first-semester language class gives us insights into the rich experiences it provides for students and us. It can be—and indeed is— transformative for so many. Here, I mean transformative not always in the affirmative, positivistic, optimistic, productive sense; I mean transformative in the sense that the class helps us and our students recognized (if not ever fully understand) the affective-epistemic limits and potentials of ourselves in the sometimes-devastating moment of asking someone to pass you the book.
By characterizing the first semester language class as a mere step in the ladder of proficiency, we risk devaluing the experiences it affords for our students. In the neoliberal model of language education, we were prompted by broader social processes and the attendant decisions by our scholarly associations to articulate our value of in ways that instrumentalizes language learning. The proficiency model is a good friend of instrumentalized language education. It hurts our programs, it hurts our students, and it hurts us. Devaluing our experiences or, worst, denying them free range, is enormously painful. Incidentally, the proficiency model has not yielded what it promised: i.e., strengthening of language education. It’s long time we abandon it and start recognizing the value of what we do, what our students experience, and why it matters to the missions of our institutions. Praising the first semester-language class might be the best way to do so in this moment.
Ervin Malakaj, Ph.D.