How can we USE the pains of language-learning to knit together a high school?


Just when I thought I could put away the topic of teaching foreign language, Elisabeth asks two wonderful questions! The first:

How would new students come into this system? I imagine teaching some subjects, even art, in another language could be quite confusing for new students. High school combats different abilities with different skill levels, but I imagine this would be harder. Especially for high school students, if you expect the ‘growing up with a language’ part is essential. Would the school be more of a ‘everyone stays there since a certain age’ thing? Because that is wonderful! But as someone who matriculated into a school with kids who have gone there for 10 years, I cannot imagine the stress that would’ve been learning a language to fully integrate with student life. I also just think that especially when you get to middle school and high school, your school will be needed by more kids who weren’t aware of it before.

I love the empathy bound up in this. In fact, let's go even further: not just how we can reduce the stress of incoming adolescents to our school (and particularly to our language program), but how can we increase the power of incoming adolescents? 

That is, how can we help incoming high schoolers get into the flow of what our school is doing in a way that's quick and gives them confidence?

The language curriculum could actually help solve that. Maybe.

My notion: that all our high school students take a week-long language-learning boot camp before the regular school year begins. There, they'd make strides in learning the language as adults: no longer absorbing the language's vocabulary and grammar (as that developmental window will have passed), but wrestling with it, and making sense of it intellectually.

It would teach a lot, and would give new students some acquaintance with the language. It would be difficult, and would require people help each other out.

Does this sound like the dull-let's-all-open-our-Spanish-textbooks-and-memorize-verb-charts method that didn't work for us in high school? If so, ack: we definitely don't want that.

My vision of this is still fuzzy, but it's being shaped by a rash of recent books that merge brain science with an adventurous and daring attitude toward learning languages. One of them — Fluent Forever, by Gabriel Wynne — is especially exciting. It's making me suspect that we can do a great job of immersing (dare I say "baptizing"?) new students into the ethos of our school by focusing intently on language learning over a brief period of time.

A week-long language boot camp could help bind new and returning students into an organic tribe. A week-long language boot camp could train in the beautiful basics of brain science. A week-long language boot camp could be really, really fun.

The secret could be merging the language training with group-bonding activities. (I know of other schools that do before-school intensive retreats for their freshmen classes. We could do the same, only with a language-twist.)

Of course, students returning to the school will have language abilities much more advanced than (most) students coming into the school for the first time. This is a potential problem — I wonder if we could turn it into an advantage: part of the task of returning students could be to help the newcomers get a grasp on the language.

New students' first experience of the school could be one of getting support from other students.

I don't want to be Pollyannaish about this. It'll be hard to span the chasm in student abilities — some will know none of the language; other will know lots. And I don't want to blithely imagine that all our students will be preternaturally friendly. Whatever anti-bullying measures we take, whatever culture-of-kindness programs we institute, our students will still be human beings.

But it seems like a real possibility to use the gap as a stimulus to community-building. We could turn this difficulty into something wonderful.

Elisabeth asks a second question:

Also, it seems like the school as a whole would learn a singular language together (or 2+ time permitting). Do you see the group learning together as important? For instance, would it be detrimental for half of the kids to learn German while the other half learns Korean?

Another great question! Some thoughts:

First, there's something about everyone in the school learning the same language that I like, a lot. Languages evolved to communicate with other people: the more people who speak the language, the more useful learning it becomes! The more people who speak it, the more people that can help you.

How cool would it be to drop a random Mandarin proverb into a science class, or a math class? Imagine a student realizing they just mastered a concept that had stood in their way for weeks, and casually referencing: "shú néng shēng qiǎo!" ("Experience can give way to skill!") And then the class chuckles knowingly, the teacher included.

(A topic that Kristin and I are exploring: to what extent should teachers learn whatever language the students are learning?)

Second, since our first school will at least start small (and may never get particularly large), it won't be possible for us to financially support multiple language programs.

On the other hand, obviously something is lost by organizing the school around a single foreign language. Students are denied choice. (Though, if they can learn in high school the fine art of learning any language relatively quickly, they can turn their studies into a new opportunity.)

Thanks for the questions, Elisabeth!

I'll be taking the rest of the week off of my scheduled posting. Christmas, and all — but I'll also be taking this break to remake the website, and make it into, well, a website: not just a blog. We've got enough ideas on here that it's possible to summarize them, giving an overview of what we're planning to do.

Thanks for the questions, Elisabeth!

(Note: the image above is from Gabriel Wynne's website, If you're interested in learning another language, you owe it to yourself to snoop around there for a few minutes.)