Thursday, December 26, 2013

Snark/asm and Second (3rd, 4th,...) Language Learning

For the past few months, I've been trying to learn Portuguese. It is definitely one of the hardest things I have done in a long time. I use interactive websites. I write in elementary grammar books. I listen to podcasts. I even try reading the news and books in Portuguese. Acquiring even the most basic conversational skill has been a painfully slow process. Despite keeping at it everyday, I can make only a few full sentences-- nothing in past tense or conditional or the million other tenses Portuguese has. As someone who is almost a doctor in the English language, it feels so odd to me not to be able to craft complex sentences or find the right vocabulary for the ideas I want to express. I haven't given up yet, though.

The reason I continue to fight it out is partially because I want to be able to converse with my boyfriend's friends and family, but even more so because I've had positive encouragement. My significant other will let me ask him one million questions about the language. He'll sit there and help me try to pronounce words. If I message him in Portuguese, he'll answer me back and show me the correct way to say what I was trying to say. He does this all with patience and kindness, and he reminds me how far I've come. At a birthday party, his family friends made me feel proud of how much I was catching on. One of my best friends is also learning Portuguese, though she is much more advanced than I am, and she also consistently reminds me that I've learned a lot and celebrates my small victories. Even online, when I chat on with native speakers, they never put down my poor grammar or the length of time it takes me to construct a thought. They are all supportive. This has made it easy to learn.

I contrast this with my attempts to learn Greek as an adult. My father is a Greek immigrant and several of my family members and close family friends speak Greek. I've been to Greece twice. I thought it was important to learn the language. The problem is that whenever I tried to speak Greek, I was met with sarcasm or playful mocking. The first time I went to Greece, my cousin would poke fun at me every time I spoke, whether my accent was incorrect or not, simply because I was an American struggling to speak the language. The second time I went to Greece, my grandmother was the only one who encouraged others to speak Greek to me in an attempt to help me learn the language, but she didn't help much with the spoken aspects. At home, my dad made no effort to encourage my Greek learning, even after I dished out a large fee for Rosetta Stone. After a while, I just didn't want to try anymore. No one would engage me. The learning process felt solitary. There was no one to practice with, and as I already felt self-conscious, the playful jests made me not want to try, even when there was.  

Sass doesn't belong in feedback to student writing. 

I spent the first five years of my life in Brooklyn, NY, grew up in Jersey, relocated to Queens, and then returned to Jersey again. I was raised by a native Staten Islander and a Greek transplanted in Brooklyn. Needless to say, I am fluent in sarcasm and teasing. I admit that I will often tease my students when they ask seemingly obvious questions, but now more than ever, I see that there is a time and place for it, and I am trying to train myself to act accordingly.

Learning a new language outside a formal educational settings has really helped me empathize with the plight of students who are learning English or even just learning to craft better Standard American Written English/Academic English/whatever fancy term you want to use to describe the English of the socioeconomic elite. It's become obvious to me that if we want students to learn, we have to tone down the sarcasm and the playful mocking.

The worst case I ever saw was on a student's paper from a law professor. A student was proposing a thesis statement for a research paper, and the professor had written things like "REALLY?????????!?!?????? Are you even trying? Can you think? Oh, so X, Y, Z happened? Really?" in a paragraph long email of harsh sarcasm that addressed his vague, overly general thesis statement. While I guessed that this professor was just offering a bit of tough love, her comments made the student feel incapable of performing the assigned task. They completely alienated him and made him feel far beneath the average student. He didn't want to ask her questions. He didn't feel playfully challenged. He felt defeated and didn't want to write anymore.

I also saw a professor who demanded that his student attend the writing center because he had a slew of grammar issues, which the professor guessed were a result of learning English as a second language. The professor thought he was being encouraging by writing snarky comments, then sending the student for extra help instead of failing him. However, the student's native language was English, and the professor's list of things to work on (which, again, he thought was encouraging) only served to make this student feel stupid and incapable of correcting what were really just small surface-level grammatical errors. He could have learned so much more if the professor just took the time to explain and perhaps actually let him play around with language.

Like I said, language learners definitely need play and playfulness. We need to make learning fun and encourage mistake-making in a nurturing environment. It clearly needs to be interactive. But fun doesn't have to be at the expense of our students, a reminder that we are superior to this, which is what snark and sarcasm both do. These students already know we have mastered something that they are struggling with. Sarcasm should be reserved for those who have already established skill and confidence, who know that they can do better. Those who are already questioning their abilities will only find further doubt in those seemingly harmless teasing remarks. In the process of building confidence, play has to be about discovery and socialization, making new connections.

Boa sorte!

No comments: