As my field of study is Spanish linguistics, I am quite familiar with theories of second language acquisition and their pedagogical applications. However, both my studies and my experience have taught me that there is no one method or idea that guarantees successful language learning. Instead, I believe there are many roads to effective teaching and learning, no one of which works for everyone. I think all teachers would agree that we share a desire to help students learn and understand whatever it is we have to teach. I also think that each teacher has to find a way to do this that fits with his or her personality and discipline, while considering the needs and goals of the students. This is true whether the class at hand is a beginning Spanish section or an advanced linguistics course.
For me, this has meant using different strategies in different teaching situations. As an ESL teacher for Mexican and Central American migrant workers during college, the focus was on improving basic communication skills. To practice these we often took “field trips” to local supermarkets and stores, but I found that the students' desire to learn was what most aided their progress. After graduating from college I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I taught both English and Spanish. While some students responded well to casual, conversation-style classes, others preferred a grammar-centered approach; as an instructor I had to find a balance between these two styles. The skills I had learned teaching ESL served me well when I taught Spanish as a second language to recent immigrants from China, as both groups needed basic skills for functioning in their new language. I also found that it is essential for an instructor to demonstrate enthusiasm for the subject at hand, as the instructor's attitude directly affects the students’.
As a new graduate student and TA at UCLA, I was introduced to teaching methodologies in a more direct way. I found it instructive to note that many methods and approaches which had been embraced in the past as the way to learn a language, famously the audiolingual method, have now been shown to be less than perfect. This taught me to keep an open mind about methodology. I also learned from studying second language acquisition that extralinguistic factors such as motivation are quite important for student learning. I believe that an effective strategy is to take from theories and methodologies what works in the classroom, and to always foster student motivation. This may mean using different methods in different classes and even different methods for different tasks in a single class. Most importantly, the instructor must never lose sight of the ultimate goal: student engagement and student learning.
Having taught various classes at the college level, I see that my original insight about the professor's attitude influencing the student is in fact intimately related to the importance of student motivation. Keeping students motivated is essential when teaching first and second year Spanish classes, which for many students represent only the fulfillment of a university requirement. If the instructor lets this "requirement syndrome" overtake the class, it is to the detriment of students who might be or become interested in continuing with the language. In such classes, I have always tried to show students how learning Spanish is relevant to their principal fields of interest, and how they can benefit from the knowledge they gain. One of the most gratifying rewards of teaching is to hear from students that I’ve changed the way they felt about Spanish, or language in general, or simply that they learned more in my class than they expected.
One key to effective teaching is to create an environment in which students enjoy learning and gain confidence in their own abilities. Many students enter the language classroom with a sense of inhibition – even dread – because they feel they are simply “not good at language”. While it’s true that students have differing levels of proficiency and ability in language learning, I encourage all my students to participate as much as they can and to learn as much as they can. Many students have commented, both on evaluations and in person, that I helped to build their confidence in Spanish. Students also take note of the fact that I arrive to class with a smile on my face, and that I make it a priority to learn their names. By doing this, I show my students the openness and respect that I expect in class, and my experience has always been that they react in kind.
It is not enough, however, to simply create a positive environment in the classroom. Students also deserve clear explanations of the material, and thoughtful activities and discussion. It is particularly important to set a high standard for class activities and discussion in a language class, as it can be easy to lapse into grammar drills or cultural stereotyping. I find that when I make sure students understand my expectations of them, and when I present difficult concepts as clearly as possible, students tend to rise to the challenge.
The insights I gained teaching language classes served me well as TA for Spanish/Portuguese M35, an introductory course in Spanish and Portuguese Linguistics. As TA for this course, I had the opportunity to teach and discuss with students issues closer to my own field of study, and I saw this as a unique opportunity to get undergraduates interested in the study of language. To this end I created a web site for the class, which included links to other linguistics sites that might be of interest, and advised students on pursuing studies in Spanish and/or Linguistics. I hope that my interest and enthusiasm for the subject inspired some of them to consider majoring or minoring in one of those areas. Again, I found that motivating students and providing them with confidence in their own abilities was of utmost importance.
Perhaps the most fitting way to close this teaching philosophy is by paying tribute to those teachers whose own creativity and dedication have inspired me. I feel that my experience as a student has greatly contributed to my skill as a teacher, since I have been able to see so many different personalities and styles of language instruction. From my Portuguese professor Jura Oliveira I learned that a little drama in the classroom can be a good thing. From Luis Morató Peña, who taught me a great deal about the Quechua language and Andean culture, and from my own thesis advisor Claudia Parodi, I learned the meaning of the word dedication. From all the teachers I’ve been privileged to study with I have learned something, and each time I enter the classroom I am building on what they taught me.