22 March 2017

The World Doesn't Need More Language Teachers

I said it before, and I'll say it again: I hope school subjects are abolished in my lifetime.

The archaic notion that understanding can be split into neat categories and segregate "math people" and "artist types" is doing no one any favors.

If you want to know something now, in the Information Age, you simply look it up between Pokestops. No library card or fees or rides to and from campus required. Good Will Hunting never had it so easy. But still we insist on playing this outdated game of Schooling.

Because it's what the colleges want. Because it's what we did. Because it's what we can understand.

Because we love it.

We relish the familiarity. We bask in our small bastion of certainty. We define ourselves by our subjects and excuse ourselves from not knowing others.

 We are wrong.

Time and time again, thought leaders tell us that we are preparing students for career fields we can't even imagine now. No amount of conjugation or comprehensible input is going to prepare our students for that. Not really. Not if we're honest about what it is our classes can offer beyond stringing different words together.

Sure, language can be a metaphor for all of the problems students can solve from scratch. It forces new perspectives into our expression and understanding. But unless we EXPLICITLY parlay that into real-world contexts with our students, we are LIARS.

This will get you a better job. This will get you a sticker on your diploma. This will get you into the college of your dreams.

So. And. What.

Those aren't young people's real needs  their driving forces. Yeah, some of us will jump through just about any hoop for a shiny sticker, but the stickers can't hold us together.


These are what Daniel Pink saw as the primary factors to motivation. I've seen it in my own life. I've seen it in every successful person with whom I've had the privilege to correspond. It's what makes me teach, what makes me blog. It's what makes my husband fix the phone system at the local police department AND what made him keep up his Duolingo streak for a month after he got home from his first trip to Mexico.

Don't get me wrong. Your students need you. Mine need me. But it's not because we're healing their monolingualism.

It's because we know the way.

We are adults. We have had problems we didn't know how to solve. And we have solved them, or at least survived them. And that is no mean feat.

Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell tells us the Babelfish is coming (does anyone else remember the Babelfish before Google Translate? No?). The language isn't what our students need most from us anymore--if ever they did.

They need to taste Mastery, perhaps of a language, perhaps of tools and strategies that allow them to go on mastering other things. 
They need to feel Autonomy, that they can pick a purpose, a goal, and actually have the confidence to go out and achieve it through carefully considered plans and reflection. 
They need a Purpose, any purpose--that doesn't get us fired. They need to be the change they wish to see in the world, to identify problems in their communities, immediate and abroad, and not despair.

My fellow teachers, linguists, experts in solving and surviving the problems that life throws our way: pass THIS on to your students. Use another language to do it so you can double their possibilities and horizons. But do not be a language teacher any longer than you have to.

Be the guide that shows the young people in your care how they can live life.


  1. Pretty sure you just stole my FLANC keynote, only better.

  2. Sra. Spanglish,

    You hit the nail on the proverbial head! I teach high school Spanish to both native and non-native speakers of the language. When I get home from work these days, I have the same notions in my head that you pose in this blog. I ask myself: Are they getting it? Are they really learning a language that they can use?

    I feel like I make the most impact with my native-speaking students because they do get it. They have enough of the language already acquired that I, and – most importantly – they, can really dig deep and apply the language to project-based learning opportunities.

    However, I struggle to bring that same a-ha moment to my non-native speaker classes where I spend too much time drilling and killing the verbs. So, I’m trying to come-up with projects where they really must explore the language and get creative. I still feel stuck to the textbook sometimes, but I’m trying my best to get unglued (but not, unhinged). There’s a certain level of fear that comes over me when I let go of my students and let them really show me what they can do in the language, but I feel that it’s in those moments where they really absorb what they are doing. I must embrace my fears and let my students fly!

    As the year ends for me, my non-native students are getting ready to begin the last unit of study which includes a collaborative group project where they create a Spanish-language newscast (video) featuring two news stories. While this is my third year trying this project, it will be my first year requiring my students to use Google Docs as a collaborative writing tool for their script development (they must submit a written script of their newscast). I feel this project helps my students explore the language more (mastery and autonomy). I’m always looking for how to bring that purpose to the forefront.

    Project-based learning is, indeed, the way to go here. Thank you for sharing the reality about bringing authenticity and purpose to our language teaching! Your blog post really blew me away! So honest and real! I truly appreciate it!