Wednesday, September 30, 2015

DIVING in the SEA of Language

By Paul Ponce, PLS Teacher

The thing is like this. I’m grew up in Miami, a warm place surrounded by beautiful beaches and plenty of water. Naturally, when it came to sports, my fellow South Florida residents and I had dozens of water-related options to choose from. And with the exception of surfing, I tried most of them. But truth be told, they were all a bit too much on the “surface” for me.

However, there was one that truly captured my heart of hearts. Scuba diving.

I don’t know. Maybe it was all those Jacques Cousteau documentaries in my youth that drove me to put on a mask, some fins, and a regulator to plumb the depths of a world supposedly not meant for me. But boy, once I got “down there”; it was like I engaged in a deeper understanding with nature and myself. An understanding that just wasn’t possible on the surface.

So many years later as an English teacher, this idea of the “surface” and its limitations surfaced from the depths of my memory. And no, I don’t mean that language learners need to learn scuba diving, although I highly recommend it. 

What I mean is that the metaphor of deep sea diving resonated in me when I saw something in my profession that didn’t feel right. I had become disappointed that in some of the schools I worked at, much of learning was based on memorizing rules and vocabulary, out of context. Or why not say it? On the surface.

In fact, I also found this quest for quantity over quality blowing its winds in the shallow waters of standardized testing. You know, students pushed by whoever it is to max out their TOEFL, IELTS and whatever test in record time, yet not taught to communicate about anything important in a meaningful way. Why? Probably to enter a good school and get a good job at a good company who would possibly – if the economy didn’t sink to the bottom- hire a good teacher to review all those rules they once studied, but now forgot. Make sense? No? Good. 

But as Bob Dylan used to say, “times are a changin”. Finally, the tide is turning on this old world mentality of what I call “surface learning”. In fact, we are in the dawn of what I like to call “deep sea learning”, especially in the language world. 

Every day, I discover and meet new colleagues - who understand that the key ingredients for learning are engagement, context and depth. It’s very exciting to see many of them using technology to connect learners to language topics that range from complex global issues, meaningful professional issues, but also through the stimulating worlds of art, music and film. And yes, their students are getting plenty of grammar and vocabulary, but this time as a means instead of an end. Of course, I’m totally engaged in doing my share of “deep sea” language teaching as well and enjoying every bit of it.

The result is not surprising. More and more language students are becoming immersed in a deeper understanding of English as a foreign language. They are resonating to new sounds, sights and experiences, developing the confidence to continue improving on their own, deeper into the language. But it’s not all fun and games. All this “deep sea language learning” will have a profound impact on their studies and professional lives as well. A positive impact.

Finally, if you'd also like to dive into the fascinating world of the sea, then check out this report about the life and adventures of legendary underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau.