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.
Learning 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.