Category Archives: World Languages

The Computerized French Language Lab at MPA

Most linguists argue that languages should not be prescriptive, but descriptive. They simply mean almost all languages are spoken, but not necessarily written. In other words, spoken language precedes written language. For example, a baby learns how to speak a language, then he/she may learn how to write it a few years later. Therefore, rules that guide syntax and word structures in a language are the result of the way that language is already spoken in a natural way. That is also one of the reasons most linguists prefer to focus first on spoken language, then later on its written forms – especially when it comes to learning a second language. Now, the real concern for second language learners is finding opportunities to practice the target language when they are away from classrooms. At Morgan Park Academy, we have put in place a computerized French language system (lab) to supplement and support our classroom language instructions in order to assist our students in developing their language proficiency, particularly the listening and speaking skills.

MandalaLearning a second language requires hours of practice. In our French classes, we discuss concepts of the French language, we use French in individual and group activities, and we play games that target vocabulary, grammar, syntax and conjugation in order to reinforce what we study. We also talk about francophone culture and compare it to our American culture. That way, our students develop a sense of respect of other cultures.

However, learning a second language goes beyond the classroom setting. Unfortunately, once at home, students don’t have a chance to practice French because most of them live in environments where French is not spoken. At Morgan Park Academy, we unlocked the secret and made it easier to our students to practice their French beyond the classroom, wherever they are and whenever they want. We use a computerized language system on top of the traditional teaching. It is an audio-visual learning experience both inside and outside MPA that our students can access using a computer or a tablet. The program is based on D’accord textbooks developed by Vista Higher Learning (VHL), which come with a user-friendly interactive software. My students interact with their classmates (or with virtual native speakers) through well-constructed and computerized French activities which allow them to practice their French in a free and meaningful way.

One of my objectives is to allow my students to understand native speakers when interacting in natural settings. By my experience, many times when students learn second languages, they speak them well enough, but they will still have trouble understanding native speakers. Besides our professional and structured pedagogy, the computerized language system (laboratory) exposes our students to the target language, allowing them to practice over and over until they start deciphering the language.

Each of my French classes meets at the MPA computerized language lab once a week. During lab sessions, students work mostly on their listening and speaking skills under my supervision. My students can also access their lab anywhere outside MPA, creating a virtual immersion environment for them in order to continue practicing French whether they are on a bus, at home, in a park, or anywhere else using their computers or tablets. The program allows them to listen to native speakers and respond to some commands using French. Every listening and speaking activity is recorded in the system, which allows me to go over the activity and assess their language skills. This feedback (for them and for me) tells me what students have learned and where they are still struggling, so I can plan my future lessons accordingly.

The French language lab also allows me to follow each student individually while others work independently. That way, they will not interfere with each other. The lab reflects a true fresh environment that takes students away from their traditional classroom setting once every week. I am proud of my students when I listen to their recordings or to their discussions in the classroom. Their French intonation and accent get better every day.

In short, a language lab offers many advantages in the learning of a second language. Among the many advantages of using a language lab are: accent and intonation improvement, clear pronunciation that facilitates imitation, increased pace of comprehension, and increased individual attention which results in a better retention of the concepts. It is amazing to see how students develop all these four language skills simultaneously.

By Thomas Mandala

Mr. Mandala teaches French in the Middle and  Upper Schools.

When will my child be fluent?

This is a question that language teachers get all of the time. My normal response is “well, I’ve been working on it for about 20 years.” Parents’ eyes usually pop out of their head, amazed. Gaining language proficiency takes tons of time and dedication, and yes, it usually takes many, many years. It’s better to treat fluency, then, like an ongoing process rather than an ultimate destination. Most students of language simply won’t wake up “fluent” one day; instead, they should notice small incremental improvements in their fluency over long periods of time.

DSC_0029xBefore we speak more about the process of becoming fluent, let’s first talk about what fluency means. Fluency is achieved when a speaker can produce language fluidly and naturally, without pauses or hesitations. Students demonstrate fluency when they are able to communicate easily without rummaging through their heads for that one vocabulary word from chapter eight or reaching for a dictionary.

What fluency does not take into account is accuracy. Verbs must be conjugated, adjectives must agree, sentences must have a logical connection to one another, etc. Fluency does not guarantee any of these qualities. As much as we might love the idea of our students chirping effortlessly in Spanish or French, we also have to consider the huge amount of information and skill students must acquire before their speech can make sense! Vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation are just some of the familiar components of a complex system that language learners are constructing in their heads while learning to speak.

Fluency and accuracy together are considered to be part of what we language teachers call proficiency. It is the goal of a language teacher that students learn to speak (and write!) with both accuracy and fluency. However, that is only part of the story. In order to communicate effectively, students must also learn cultural norms and customs and what are called “discursive strategies”. Students need to learn how to address others formally and informally, how to manage greetings and partings, courtesy expressions, and turn taking, among other important skills.

Now that we’ve thought about some of the many aspects of language that learners need to think about while speaking, perhaps it makes more sense why it takes them so very long to “become fluent!”  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate each and every step they take towards becoming better speakers and writers of their language of choice. In my next post, I will speak more about proficiency goals and how we help students to meet them.

By Lisa Camastro

Ms. Camastro teaches Spanish II, III, and IV in the Upper School and is our curriculum leader for World Languages. Read more in her Q&A.


Why We Only Speak French in French Class


Imagine entering a classroom and being greeted by a smiling teacher … in French. The teacher asks you to take out your homework, exchange with a partner, and discuss your answers — all without speaking a word of English.

Sounds scary, right? It’s not!

Morgan Park Academy’s world language teachers aim to spend at least 90% of class time interacting with students in their target language: French, Spanish, or Mandarin. Teaching in the target language can be challenging, but like a parent speaking to a toddler, our faculty is trained to speak to students at a level of language that they can understand.

We follow the rule of “L plus 1,” which means that we interact with students in the target language at a level that is just slightly above where they are. If the input is too difficult — too fast or too complicated — students get lost and frustrated. If input is too simple, they will get bored and plateau in their learning.

We strive to reach a level that is just right for them, adjusting our speech constantly to make sure they understand. We also use visual aids, movement, facial expressions, and comprehension checks to make sure that nothing is getting lost in translation.

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Meet Our Teachers: Lisa Camastro


Lisa Camastro teaches Spanish II, III, and IV in the Upper School and is our curriculum leader for World Languages. Now in her third year at Morgan Park Academy, she holds a Master’s in Hispanic Studies from Saint Louis University and a B.A. in Spanish from the University of Notre Dame.


What are your favorite moments with a student?

One of my favorite moments is when my students start to make jokes in Spanish. It sounds like a simple thing, but it actually shows that they have a really good grip on the language. Plus, it makes me laugh and brightens my day.

What experiences or people had the most influence on you?

Living in Spain was an eye-opening experience. As much as you learn in school about a culture, it’s not until you live there that you really start to understand it. Living abroad is also a great way to understand yourself and your own culture. It’s not always easy to do, but I encourage all of my students to spend a semester abroad in college. It will change their lives for the better.

What do you want your students to take away from having known you?

I want my students to inherit my sense of curiosity. I would love for them to speak Spanish well, but the bigger picture to me is an interest in culture and language that they can carry with them through the rest of their life. It’s a big world out there, and I want them to explore it.

World Languages & Reaching Global Competency (or: How We Met Elvis in San Antonio)

haskins-riverwalkGrateful for both the professional opportunity and a break from the Chicago weather, we were excited to head to San Antonio, Texas, last month for four days of inspiration, learning, and battery-recharging at the annual conference of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

We had the opportunity to attend pre-convention workshops and three days of mini-sessions focused on many different areas of language teaching. As teachers, we are well familiar with educational concepts such as flipped classrooms, cultural competency, can-do statements, and meaningful homework, and being able to focus on them with an eye to their implementation in language classrooms was invaluable.

Here are some highlights from our conference experience!

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Meet Our Teachers: Thomas Mandala

mandala-headshotPlease help us welcome the newest member of our World Languages faculty! Thomas Mandala teaches French for Grades 7-12 and is an Upper School advisor.

A native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Mandala has taught French and English as a Foreign Language courses on the college, high school, and middle school levels in his home country and in the United States, including the past four years at the City Colleges of Chicago.

He holds a Master’s degree in French from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a B.A. in French Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is about to complete a Master’s degree in the Teaching of English as a Second/Foreign Language at Northeastern Illinois University.


How do you help students learn to learn?

Hands-on learning. I motivate my students to keep trying and to be ready to make mistakes, because we all learn from our mistakes. Most people say that children learn foreign/second languages faster than adults. For me, the reason kids learn languages faster is that they easily speak their minds. When they speak, they don’t care whether they will make a mistake or not. What they care about is producing something in order to communicate their thought. That’s the attitude a language-learner has to adopt. So I encourage my students to do so. The rest of the polishing — sentence structures, conjugation, and grammar — comes over time.

How do you inspire a student who has a hard time learning your subject?

Students are all different. We don’t all learn the same way. I tell my students that learning a foreign/second language is a process. We don’t do it overnight. It takes some time to have a good understanding of how a language system works. Hard work and practice usually lead to success. I give them my own example. I learned English as a foreign language in a French-speaking country, and I am not special. If I made it, my students who learn French as a foreign language can also make it.

How do you get the results you want each student to achieve?

I try to create a healthy classroom environment in which learners trust each other. I also favor teamwork because it fosters bonds among learners and transforms the classroom into a community of learners. That way, learners express themselves freely and learn from each other. The fast learners help those who struggle so that everyone gives the best of themselves. I also try to adjust my teaching style to meet my students’ learning styles, since some students may be visual learners while others may be aural, reading/writing, or kinesthetic learners.

What are your interests and hobbies?

I love writing stories, taking photos, shooting and editing videos. I can spend hours with my camera, camcorder, and computer, playing with pictures. I am excited to work with similarly passionate students in Morgan Park Academy‘s video editing club.