Input Plus One: Educational Distress

Alternative Title for Language Pedagogy Nerds: Krashen Burn – Input Plus Too Many

Things out of reach.

I learned some new things this week.

  • I can catch the early, non-crowded bus at a different stop than the one I have been using, giving myself a few extra minutes to get there and get a newspaper.
  • The free local newspaper, 20 minutos, is exactly the right length for my – you guessed it – 20 minute bus ride. (It probably takes 20 minutes for a native Spanish speaker to read the whole thing. I can only do it because I skip the sports section.)
  • If I catch said early bus, I can arrive at school early enough to drink a cup of coffee at the cafeteria up the street, on the sunny and increasingly chilly patio.
I was feeling pretty good about my mornings until yesterday, when I got to my stop, picked up my newspaper, and settled in to read about local escapades and international demonstrations. However, in the midst of all my carefree confidence I didn’t actually catch the correct bus. I ended up in a strange remote neighborhood, wandering aimlessly and following useless or contradictory directions until I finally caught a taxi. At that point my flimsy sense of competence fell apart.
I think that is a big part of moving to a new country – the roller coaster of elation at the simplest accomplishments, like taking a consistent enough route every day to orient yourself along the way, followed by plunging depths of the despair. I have found this to be particularly true with my language immersion experience, and the resulting state of constant confusion.
The teachers here have been so friendly, despite or perhaps because of the fact that I am apparently an idiot. During the morning coffeebreak I try to keep up with and participate with conversations, but by the time lunch time comes around I am physically and verbally exhausted, and even less capable of intelligent conversation. Sometimes I can contribute a comment to a conversation, usually via some syntactical disaster, but mostly I stick to nodding wisely and laughing when everyone else is laughing, with a vague fear that someone will ask me for input, which will reveal how little I am actually able to keep up.
I know things will get better. I felt victorious this week because I caught myself understanding Valencian. My first week or so here I didn’t even comprehend the differences between Castellano and Valencian – I only could tell what language it was based on my level of confusion. (If I was totally lost, it was probably Valenciano. If I was only somewhat lost, it was probably Castellano.) Gradually I began picking out sounds and phrases of Valenciano – nouns with their final vowel dropped. Syllables that sound French to me. Then this week in the 5th grade Castellano class, one kid didn’t know how to say a word in Valencian and I was able to tell him. Later, at lunch in the teacher’s lounge, I understood a conversation between two teachers in Valencian. I was elated. I felt like a rockstar. Then (of course) someone asked me a simple question in Castellano – which I have been studying and speaking for nine years now – and I couldn’t respond.

In communicative language teaching, Krashen has a theory about the ideal comprehensible input  – language should be understandable but still challenging, for maximum learning potential. I know this because I sat in classrooms and learned about it, but also because I have stood in classrooms and walked that fine line: between letting students get the gist, or tipping them over into paralyzed confusion. The littlest ones have the least tolerance for my foreign gibberish, and the least qualms about letting me know that they have no clue what the hell I am saying. Es que… es que… es que no te entiendo. Ni una palabra. But after simplifying everything, adding a lot of pictures and arm-flailing, they are the ones who are singing number songs in English when I pass them in the hall.

It is good for me to be a language learner parallel to being a language teacher. It is good for me to be pushed just beyond my own limits.

So far my time here in Spain has been a lot of things. Beautiful. Confusing. Peaceful. Frantic. Lonely. Crowded. It is an overwhelming jumble, but even when I feel submerged I can appreciate the value in being submerged. Language immersion leads to language learning, obviously, but it’s the kind of linguistic growth spurt that is so dramatic that you ache with the adjustment. Limbs tingling. Joints creaking.

I hope to write more soon. Tomorrow morning I leave for Madrid for the weekend, to visit a friend and attend a manifestación – a protest against the educational cuts here that are similar to what U.S. schools have suffered. More on that later.




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