Language Sensei

A Language Teacher's Journey

Saying “I Don’t Understand” With Confidence…


CWatching my Grade 11’s work the other day on their 50 minute Target Language oral (Club Decision), I marveled at their ‘ease’ with each other. They were engaged, animated and talking – most importantly – they were willingly engaging with each other. I know we’ve all seen it – the student who won’t/can’t/doesn’t want to participate until they know they won’t say something incorrectly. Or maybe you’ve had the one who won’t work with others because they’re afraid they’ll use a word they don’t know. How do we teach for communication and not for understanding? How do we help students to not fear a word – and to carry on a conversation confidently and without fear?

Teach “Assisting” from the Start – In Year 1 we practice many ways to say “I don’t understand” and in fact we make it a ‘game’ – saying it in many ways (cartoon voice, scary voice, super high pitched voice, anime voice) – so that the word is familiar – and ready to use when needed. Then helping begins with a simple (what I call)  “Repeat/Act & Give an Example” strategy. When your partner doesn’t understand first – repeat. The room is noisy and maybe they didn’t hear you. So repeat in a normal and calm voice adding hand actions if you can. If they still aren’t sure then start to pull out examples. Give your own answer and ask again. Given an example and ask again.  If its still not working then call me over – we’ll conference on a way to get your meaning across (without resorting to English).

Practice “Not Understanding” –  We practice a sport before we play a league game, we practice our music before we play a concert – why don’t we practice not understanding? It is something that, after all, will probably occur for everyone one at some point in using the language. So we make it part of our interpersonal practice routine. While switching up partners I will often cue students – “take one thing your partner says and purposely don’t understand”. They love it, and they relax and practice both not knowing and the assist. It’s a treat to see students as they help their partner. And its also a handy way to see if the partner is paying attention!

Encourage “Inclusiveness” – Often in language classes you see students who are confident not want to work with a perceived ‘weaker’ student (and vice versa). Why? I think its because they fear that their partner won’t understand them – and that they won’t get to show what they know. I’m big on ‘making your partner look good’. Facilitating and including everyone in the conversation is a part of every rubric that I use – and one that I stress in class. After all, as I remind my classes, using a language is about communicating, it is not about making a speech.

Affirm “The Journey” – I talk a lot about the ‘journey’ with my students. We stress in class that communicating is about teamwork – working together to get a meaning across. And learning new words, new things to say requires practice – just like any other skills. So, not understanding, or making an error, is a natural part of this process. Now,  not understanding everything isn’t – but missing a word, mishearing someone is going to happen so let’s take it in stride. And if you do find yourself in that situation – relax, let your partner know and let them help you out.

Reducing fear and encouraging risk is a key tenet of language learning. How do you help your students to ‘not fear not understanding’?


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