Language Autobiography

Teachers’ prior experiences can have a profound influence on their classroom teaching practices. Many language teachers, in fact, rely more on their past experiences as language learners than on the knowledge they encounter in their teacher education programs to inform their teaching practices. Therefore a story of my experiences learning languages can be a valuable insight into my teaching.

Language and Me
A Language Autobiography 
by Jordan Gusich September 9, 2010

Language learning has been influential throughout my life in a variety of dimensions ranging from critical life and career choices to leisurely pursuits. The extent of my foreign language exposure and experience is probably just above average for most Americans. Starting with my thoughts and experiences learning my native tongue, moving through my trials and tribulations in high school and undergraduate language learning, and ending where I am today with my most prominent L2, I would like to tell the story of language in my life. More importantly, I will relate these language experiences to my teaching philosophy and classroom practices.

I. “L1 acquisition is far out, man.”

During my undergraduate studies, one of my neighbors felt the need to sit me down and discuss his experience with LSD the night before. He was very adamant that in the midst of his experience on this hallucinogenic drug he had the entire universe figured out. Needless to say, I was intrigued. After all, I was in the presence of an all knowing sage. I asked him, “So. Enlighten me. What is the meaning of life?” His response very well may be the reason I have stayed drug free. He answered, “I can’t remember, man.” He was quite confident that he had it the night before. Unfortunately, on this day he was at a loss. Like a word on the tip of your tongue, or a face you can imagine, but cannot think of the person’s name, my experimental neighbor knew the answers were somewhere floating in his mind, but just could not manage to round them up.

This anecdotal incident with my neighbor parallels my feelings about L1 acquisition. Anyone who speaks knows that they acquired their native tongue. I can say that I acquired mine quite effectively. Nonetheless, I have no idea how it happened.

Still, my L1 acquisition has swayed my teaching and learning frame of mind in some ways. As a learner, I have experienced this concept of ‘learning without knowing’ (as you will see with my Serbian experience). Also, I believe it is important to understand this concept as a teacher. Students may not be aware of their progress just as I was not aware of my L1 or L2 acquisition. Thus, it is important for teachers to let students know about their progress. Making students aware of their success is very encouraging and comforting. It can contribute to a better attitude and to more motivation for the student to continue learning.

II. “What the heck are they saying?”

My first experience with a foreign language took place when I was a child and it all happened in church. From my earliest memories until around the age of fifteen, I could be found every Sunday in Saint Peter and Paul Serbian Orthodox Church in South Bend, Indiana. The service, prayer books, and bible were in Serbian and Old Church Slavonic, and many of the parishioners were native Serbian speaking immigrants or second generation heritage speakers.

I must say that those formidable years spent in church were very interesting for me because every Sunday for about three hours, I had no idea what was written or being said around me. The entire service was beautifully chanted by the priest, and songs were gorgeously sung by the choir, but in my head I just heard the teacher from Charlie Brown babbling away tirelessly. In Sunday School we mumbled through prayers and songs like people singing along to songs that they do not know the words to. The other alter-boys and I confusingly gazed at the prayer books at the strange Cyrillic letters commenting on how some of them looked “cooler” than others. Parishioners pinched my cheeks and gave me kisses while contorting their mouths to make bizarre sounds. I smiled and nodded.

Maybe I am painting a dismal picture of my church experience. I should say that it was very positive and enjoyable despite the linguistic confusion, and there was just as much English being spoken in and around church, if not more than Serbian. Most interestingly, it is possible that I might have even picked up a little more Serbian than I thought. After all, without any further study of Serbian I was able to distinguish Serbian from Romance Languages, for example. Also, I could confidently say that a random text very well might be Serbian. It is not much, but these are examples of linguistic phenomena nonetheless. In essence, I was able to discriminate ‘Serbian-ishness’.

I often think of my Serbian Church experience when doing listening exercises in the classroom, which may be too difficult for lower level students. There can be a lot of information that students can get from a listening even though they might not understand a single word. Information can be understood such as: how many people were speaking, the emotional state of the speakers, formality of the conversation, if the speakers are male or female, young or old, etc. This type of information can lead to a deeper understanding to what or who the students are listening to, and help students understand the importance of context in language.

One more important insight into language came about from my church experience. I realized how intertwined language and culture are. With the Serbian Church being such an integral part of Serbian culture, it would be strange to have the services, prayer books, and bibles in English, or any other language.

I definitely did not have a bilingual upbringing, but due to every Sunday I feel I had a bicultural childhood. I had a sense that each culture was different, but I never considered one better than the other. Most notably, this is the same belief I take to the language classroom as both a student and a teacher.

III. The Classical Period

My first classroom experience with a foreign language began in High School. It was mandatory to take a foreign language for the four year duration. We could choose French, Spanish, or Latin. The word around school was that Latin was the easiest. I circled Latin on the form that we all had to fill out and never looked back. When it came time to choose a language in college for similar graduation requirements, Latin was an easy choice. So for six years of my academic life I diligently studied the ancient language of the Roman Empire.

The majority of my Latin language experience could be simply summed up as rote learning. Every class we recited endings to noun declensions and verb conjugations. Literally, we recited just the endings without any words connected to them. We also had a reading book that had pictures next to short stories. For example, if the story was about a girl sitting under a tree the page on the left hand side had a picture of a girl under a tree. Reciting this story repeating after the teacher was usually the culmination of each lesson. Frankly, the lessons were as dead as the language. By the end of High School I could fill out all of the Latin conjugation and declension paradigms rather quickly and efficiently, and I was able to read a story in simple Latin as long as it had a picture next to it. Not bad for four years, but it was not exactly what I would call language acquisition.

My college Latin experience was a little more interesting. There was not much of a difference in what happened in the classroom other than we discussed Latin linguistic phenomena in much more detail. What was more remarkable was the amount of homework we had to do. Homework consisted of translations mostly from Latin to English, but a little from English to Latin as well. The texts were real ancient writings. The more texts I translated, the faster I translated them. By my final semester, I was reading Virgil’s Aeneid without having to write it in English. I was simply reading the Latin.

Had all of the flash cards, paradigms, repetitions, and rote memorization actually worked? To a certain extent they did. I was a completely literate Latin reader, but the rote learning was just the foundation. It was the process of doing homework that really took my Latin to the next level. I was able to work at my own pace in the comfort of my own home without any anxiety or pressure.

Latin helped me realize a couple important ingredients to my teaching practices. First, I believe learning is easier in a comfortable setting. The comfort that I experienced doing my Latin homework can be recreated in the classroom. Whether it is soft chairs, proper lighting, pleasant background music, or just a friendly smile, anything that decreases the tension of a classroom has a positive effect on whatever learning is taking place. In addition, I understand that all learners have their own pace of learning, just as my some of my classmates no longer had to write out their translations word for word in the first semester of college and it took me until the forth semester. It is vital to recognize this in the classroom and offer some students more scaffolding when needed. Lastly, I believe that sending students home with a task is a great idea to help them with their language learning. Maybe I was unique in that I found Cicero exciting, but I think movies, comics, television shows, and the like can be a fun and enjoyable way to take the classroom home with students.

VI. Back to the Beginning

With college behind me and a few years of work to pay off my student loans, I felt the need to learn a foreign language and travel. I considered a ton of languages and destinations, but ultimately I made the decision during my childhood. I enrolled in a Serbo-Croatian class and started looking into study-abroad programs in Serbia. It was my first living language experience.

In the beginning I was in disbelief. The grammar of Serbian is not so different from that of Latin. However, I only had to read Latin. Naively, I thought that no one would be able to speak such a language with these complex inflections changing every word depending on its use. Nonetheless, our quaint group of six led by a Slavic linguist forged our way through the best Serbian book at the time: a travel book. We learned the grammar similarly to the way I learned Latin grammar and we read the dialogues in the book together as a class. The students as well as the professor were pretty satisfied with a few one word responses and an original sentence or two in Serbian every lesson. By the end of the year I by no means felt comfortable with the Serbian language, but it did not stop me from signing up for a summer school program in Valjevo, Serbia. It was time for immersion.

I spent about a month in Valjevo staying with a host family, who did not speak a word of English, and going to class for about 5 hours a day. Immediately, I knew that I had a lot to learn. Thankfully, the host family was wonderful. I spent most of my time with them sitting in the kitchen. I am still amazed by their patience. We would often spend up to an hour just to exchange basic information between one another. I remember the first morning describing my family, which consists of my parents and one older brother. Informing my host family of the names, ages, and occupations of my small family took about an hour and a half and two cups of coffee. The classes consisted of reading texts either in class or for homework the night before and then we would discuss them as a group. I never had much to offer in class. After class the students would go home to our host families for dinner, which lasted around five hours including aperitifs, multiple courses, digestifs, and a couple cups of strong coffee. Relaxed from the alcohol and stimulated by the caffeine, I found myself chatting away with the family to the best of my abilities throughout this long dinner ritual every evening. After dinner, the students would meet back in town so that we could give our minds a break and speak our native languages. All of this continued for the six weeks of the program.

Needless to say, the month flew by and when it was time to go I had a fairly bleak view of what I had learned in Valjevo. I could certainly say that it was a delightful lesson on how to eat, drink and be merry, but the thing I wanted most out of this experience is to improve my Serbian language abilities. I never did my homework. I was usually utterly exhausted during the lessons to get anything out of them. I was intoxicated the majority of my stay on a combination of high octane brandy and turbo-charged coffee. I returned home with a smile on my face, but a fear in my heart. My second year Serbo-Croatian class was approaching and I was not sure how I would face my classmates and professor.

As it turns out, I was completely wrong and I did in fact improve my L2 abilities. The students of the Serbo-Croatian class and I had received an email stating that we have graduated from our previous Slavic Linguist to a native Croat as a teacher. I was excited. On the first day of class I walked in and shook the teacher’s hand and introduced myself in my best Serbian. We exchanged a few words and she gleefully welcomed me to the class. Then came the surprise. The room was filled with wide eyes and dropped jaws. My classmates were blown away by my interaction with the teacher and how naturally the short conversation sounded. They immediately bombarded me with questions. “How did you do that? Where did you go? What book did you use?” I replied, “Ne znam. (I do not know.)” If I had the chance to go back in time and answer those questions I would tell them that I used a kitchen table.

I studied this wonderful language at the college level for the rest of the year and enrolled in another summer school course, this time in Zagreb, Croatia. A year later, I moved to Belgrade, Serbia to live and work for a year. My language skills constantly improved throughout.

My Serbian is still not all that great and by no means do I consider myself even close to bilingual, but it was a successful experience that truly shaped my view of language learning and teaching. There are so many different aspects of my experience that contributed to successful language learning that I simply cannot go into detail about all of them. Instead I want to focus on one aspect: meaningful communication. I experienced real language. Instead of dialogues, flash cards, and paradigms, I took the bus, asked for directions, went to the post office, and sat at the kitchen table. All of these interactions included others that I had to communicate and have real social interactions with. As with my L1, I was not completely sure how it all happened, but in the end I knew it had indeed occurred. This idea presents one of the most difficult tasks for me as a teacher in an EFL setting. How do I bring this ‘real life’ L2 experience to the classroom? The answer is not easy, but it definitely lies in the midst of thoughtful planning of lessons that include activities that get as close as possible to those real life experiences. The most important thing for teachers to comprehend is that although the lessons and activities have a certain artificiality, the students’ communication can still be meaningful.

V. What’s next?

Unfortunately, my future acquisition of Serbian is uncertain. I have actually forgotten a lot already and just recently stumbled through a rough conversation with a Bosnian woman working at my grocery store. However, I do not really mind because I have a new language experience on the horizon. Although my wife’s English is perfect, she was born and raised in Slovakia and of course the household language of her family is Slovak. Thankfully, Slovak is in the same language family as Serbian. That does not mean it will be easy to learn Slovak, but it does offer a nice foundation to start from. What I am sure of is that my past language experiences will play an integral part of how I go about learning Slovak. That means that even though I know it will be challenging, I will make sure that I have plenty meaningful communication in an atmosphere that is fun and comfortable. I am counting on my wife to provide the encouragement and awareness of progress. And I am sure a little high octane brandy and turbo-charged coffee will help along the way as well.