Helena Talaya-Manso, Ph.D / Assistant Professor of Spanish / Oxford College of Emory University
“If…language is seen as social practice, culture becomes
the very core of language teaching.”
Claire Kramsch in Context and Culture in Language Teaching
The teaching and the learning experiences are both and individual event and a social encounter, from which we cannot separate culture, language, literature and history. As a native of Spain teaching Spanish language to a multicultural student body, I am aware of the cultural complexities involved in language learning. Communication, Experiential learning and cultural awareness become the center of the experiences, as Claire Kramsch asserts. My teaching philosophy stresses those principles that I consider central to the foreign language learning process: communication, experiential learning and independent discovery.
As a Faculty member trained in the communicative method, I believe that communication is the most important aspect of language teaching, and communication is a social activity. This is why in my classes I rarely lecture and instead I take a communicative student-centered approach. To do so I devote a significant portion of class-time to practice speaking in pairs or small groups. I normally start every class with a warm-up activity having the students to find partners to talk to, and assign weekly group Projects. This pedagogy makes the class one single unit where we are interdependent. The methodology I use in my classes --regardless of the level--, is consistently recognized by students as an excellent one.
Not only is it important that the students communicate in class, but that they feel comfortable in doing so. That is why another priority in my classes is to build a relaxed atmosphere. A high level of comfort seems to be what truly leads to learning. I am positive that the fact I am not an English speaker helps with this objective and does benefit my students. Remaining evidence of my own experience developing expertise in a language other than my own strengthens the ties with other language learners and builds trust between students and instructor. In this atmosphere of trust mistakes are not negative events, but become stepping-stones that enable students to improve.
I am aware that students enter language courses with different learning experiences and backgrounds. Students in lower level courses may have very divergent capacities. An improved language placement process (such as I have been working on here at Oxford) can help address this problem. Still, it is unavoidable that in lower level classes and indeed in any class there will be students who have difficulties. In alignment with the Oxford educational model, one of my priorities is to offer individual support to such students. I encourage students to see me outside of class and also to work with the Spanish tutors – a group of advanced students, native and non-native speakers- who can also provide an effective form of remediation.
I consider experiential learning as a crucial part of the learning process. In class I view my role as a facilitator enabling students to use such skills and knowledge as they already have. For instance, in advanced literature classes such as SP311, I do so by inviting them to apply the techniques of literary analysis from previous classes they might have taken. Each student is in charge of leading a class making a presentation of the author whose work is going to be analyzed that day. One example of activity that shows how I use experience in class is the invitation I extended to a contemporary Spanish author of short stories to join the class via Skype to have a conversation with us. Students would have previously read and analyzed the stories and had prepared their questions. Another example of a real experience in class was the connection with a group of peers via Skype, a group of students at the Instituto de la Cañada in Valencia, Spain.
Learning another language implies the acquisition of cultural understanding. It is through my classroom that students have the opportunity to experience the culture of the Hispanic world. Here I want to emphasize that being a native speaker is the best way to be able to transmit naturally and convincingly a deeper insight into those cultural aspects that make Spanish culture unique. I incorporate cultural learning in my classes in different ways, encouraging students to watch movies, to read Spanish newspapers and to attend multicultural events that take place at the college and throughout the city. My position on the board of the cultural association Spain in Atlanta makes me a good source of information on relevant events happening--. An example of one such event my students and I attended was a Flamenco performance that combined the dance with the poems of Federico García Lorca, one of the authors we were studying in the SP 311-Introduction to literature course. This kind of activity offers a true connection between class content and real life so constituting a pure example of experiential learning.