Lessons from Dora…
While his father wouldn’t have sat still for more than a minute at that age, Jacob was quite content to sit through the whole thing, all 30 minutes of it. Only occasionally did he show any sign of agitation which was usually followed by his whispered voice …..”Doooora”.
As I had not seen the show before I was surprised to find out that the little girl who explored her world not only spoke English but also taught her similarly sized viewers Spanish … we’ve come a long way since the days of “Chez Helene”.
And there was Jacob taking it all in, mimicking both the English and Spanish words, which were colourfully displayed and modelled for him to try. It appears we’ve also come a long way in how we teach languages as well.
My first formal introduction to a foreign language was French in Grade 9. Prior to that, the only French I had ever heard, saw, or listened to was presented to me when I was a child ( a little older than Jacob, but not much ) by the CBC in its child programming … “Chez Helene”. While technology has changed significantly since those early 60s television shows, Chez Helene was certainly no Dora. I’m not sure if somewhere along the line I confused turning off the programme with turning off the language, I don’t know… all that I do know is my high school French experience was a disaster.
It seems somewhat ironic that many years later I find myself studying to become a “language” teacher and in a way, becoming a member of the ranks of those who had tortured me in that Grade 9 year. I suppose the ultimate justice would be that I would teach someone like myself … if that is the case, the laws of uniformitarianism ( the present is the key to the past ) have come full circle.
While much has been written on language acquisition, and more on this later, my foreign language career can be summed in two words: intrinsic motivation.
Brown correctly states that: “intrinsic motivation is a big issue, since students may have difficulty in seeing relevance of learning this second language” (Brown, 2001 pg 117). French was a mandatory subject when I was in Grade 9, at that time I would have preferred to take another English class. Nobody I knew spoke French, there were no “French Clubs” at high school, and we had very little access to actually hearing the language being spoken in our outside world. Additionally, Brown would have described this form of delivery as a foreign language context, where “students do not have ready-made contexts for communication beyond their classroom” (Brown, 2001 pg 116). In this environment, I found very little use for the language … it was hard to become proficient when you have no avenue for practice.
My instructor, at least from my perspective then, failed to win me over in the usefulness of the language …Quebec, in my eyes at that age was not only another province, it might as well have been another country.
Unlike the spritely “Dora”, whose adventures grasp the imagination of her viewers, while subtly presenting language modelling, the concentration in my Grade 9 days was on French grammar, rather than learning to listen and then speak the language. Authors of language acquisition theories, such as Krashen, McLaughlin et al, in one form or another have come to the conclusion that successful learners of language first “acquire” it, then refine it.
One needs only to look at Jacob. At two, he has ( grandfather’s pride not withstanding ) a fairly sophisticated vocabulary for his age, this is also now including the Spanish he is picking up from Dora. I can’t recall ever providing my own children with a grammar lesson in the formative stages of their language acquisition, something McLaughlin would call “peripheral properties of implicit learning” (McLaughlin, 1983. This, I believe, is a significant difference in the method of language instruction from my day to now whose emphasis is placed on acquiring the speaking and listening skills before the formal rule-based lessons are introduced; the Communicative Approach vs the Grammar Translation Method.
My French sessions then were no more than a grammar lesson. Today, participants are actually exposed to real language, whether via TV, radio, newspapers and, the holder of all knowledge…the internet.
One of the most striking aspects of watching “Dora the Explorer” is the use of colour and animation in each “lesson”. While I understand that changes in technology have taken place many times over the years, and that paradigms on the educational use of multi-media have indeed been broken, I can’t help but look in awe at the quality and quantity of available material being used in language classes today.
When I was in Grade 9, all we had were text books which, even to us, looked worn and antiquated. They were, in reality, no more than lists of words to be memorised: French on one side, English on the other.
Learning scenarios were supported by dated sketches of stereotypes for the era. In fact, the famous “Dick and Jane” books I had in Grade 1 were slightly more appealing. Delivery methods and materials, at least in my view, are a key factor in “winning over participants”. Until you can convince them of the “WIIFM”, or “what’s in it for me”, you may have to rely on your delivery materials to hold their interest…this was abysmally absent in my day.
I believe that the materials one uses can often be misinterpreted as a sign of relevance. For example, in my high school days, one wrote 3 sets of exams: Christmas, Easter, and June finals. While preparing for the Christmas exams I had what I thought was the good fortune to meet one of my brother’s best friends, Jean. As he was perfectly bilingual in French and English, I asked him to help translate a passage in the required reading material that I was having difficulty with, “Ted Bopp”. One passing glance and Jean tossed the book aside and exclaimed, “this is a stupid story” and that was that. I felt deflated on two fronts: 1) not getting the passage translated and 2) if a bilingual thought it was stupid, what was the relevance? I have now adopted the mantra “keep it real” when selecting resources for use in language instruction.
I witnessed the logic of this when I sat in on a number of ESL sessions this past year. The language lessons were “real and relevant” and as a result the participants became engaged and attended. This was a far cry from my Grade 9 sessions, which often resembled the class room scenes from the movie Ferris Bueller.
From this I have gathered a number of lesson plan objectives that I hope will distance my participants from the language experiences that I had in those high school years….many were created with “Dora’s” help:
1- My sessions will be “bright and colourful” both in presentation and content.
2- It will be real ( imagination is real to a child ).
3- Many will argue here, but remember this is my list: Grammar will be outlawed until their skill sets command its introduction.
4- We will be vocal, vocal, vocal. Participants will be allowed to succeed and hopefully be confident not to fear a failure.
5- They will learn the “music” of the language.
While all of this may appear that I have bitterness towards my language experience, this is not the case as I often felt the same about Physics and Logarithms. For some of us, “seeing” the material and its application requires the use of many lenses: motivation, experience, self-discipline, tolerance and, sometimes, just the love of learning…something a kin to sitting in a chair with someone you love and just watching…it could even be “Dora”
“Hagale tienen gusto del abuelo del Dora, el es mi demostracion preferdia” Jacob said and I replied, “Oui, Jacob, que j’aime Dora laisse beaucoup maintenant disparaitre extrieur et jeu”.