Here is my recent article that was published in the March 2014 edition of the IB World Magazine:
One of the reasons why I love teaching in International Schools is that my classes are filled with children from all over the world, speaking many different languages. I remember the first time a student asked me “What does this word mean in English?” Although I didn’t speak the language that she was referring to, other students in the class did. An argument erupted over the correct translation. With each suggestion the girl said….”no, that’s not quite what I’m thinking.” Yes, this was a Language A English class, but I realized the importance of bringing our students’ first languages into our writing and literature classes.
Sometimes international students find it difficult to transfer what they learn in English class to what they are learning in their mother tongue classes. They keep their learning compartmentalized. Students usually have been quite schooled in poetic terminology. They can find the similes and they can find the rhyme. But when I ask, what is this literary device called in German? Or Hindi? Or Korean? My students will usually stare blankly at me, unable to give me an answer.
One of the ways I try to break down the walls between languages is to have multi-lingual lessons within a unit. For example, when students begin to analyze poetry, they typically pick apart the structural elements first. They then look and listen for sound devices, images, and other figurative language. Students love pulling apart the puzzle of poetry. Not just for what it says, but for how the author formulated what they wanted to say. Then we look for its literal and figurative meanings.
Can’t we also teach poetry analysis in English class in a language other than English? They can see the stanzas or the form. They can see the rhyme scheme, and if they don’t see the rhyme scheme, they will certainly hear it when it is read to them. Once the students feel comfortable with analyzing poems in English, I throw out some works in other languages.
Children’s stories written as narrative poems, are often the most accessible for young students. I choose those that my students are familiar with from their home countries. Since I teach in Germany, I use Max und Moritz by Wilhelm Busch. The German students are very familiar with the stories of these two trouble makers. I have my German students summarize briefly what the story is about and then they read a section aloud to the class. Then the non-German speakers find the rhyme scheme. The beginning German speakers then would point out the alliteration. And the German speakers could begin to pull apart the meter of the poem and explain how it contributes to the meaning of the poem.
But what if you are teaching students who speak languages with unfamiliar characters, like Hindi? Why not try the poem written in Hindi titled Varsha Rani. This poem is about a rainstorm. And due to its sound devices, it also sounds like a rainstorm. The characters will be completely foreign to the non-Indian students, but if you give them enough time they will begin to see the patterns in the characters. They will see the characters that rhyme, they will see the repetition, they may even see the alliteration.
Then open it up to the class. Put your students on the spot. This year, my Korean students often have mother tongue right after English class. So they whipped out their textbooks, found a poem, and gave an impromptu analysis. They were able to show their classmates how to see the sounds in the Korean characters.
The students are always amazed that authors around the world use the same kinds of tools to make us feel certain things. And they realize that we feel certain things when we hear certain sounds, regardless of the language spoken. They learn that meaning in a poem does not just come from what the words are saying but how the author makes the lines of words sound. We don’t have to know Hindi to feel the rain in Varsha Rani. And we don’t have to understand German to hear the sing-song silliness of Max and Moritz.
The students also will gain the appreciation for reading a work in its original language. They begin to understand that when you translate a work, you might lose the “sounds” of the work. If Varsha Rani was read in English, the translator may be able to recreate some of the images, however the meter and the sound of the rain might be lost.
The best part of having multilingual lessons is showing my students that they have something to teach their classmates. They are empowered by taking the risk of sharing the beauty and wonder of their own language with us.