Language Learning

On Saturday, I worked with two students online. The first is a high school junior who I’ve worked with since she was in eighth grade. The second is an eighth grader who I met when he was in sixth grade. Both students are bi-lingual. Both students are high-achieving. Both students are expected by their parents to work hard.

“Gina” and I worked on SAT prep. She had taken a practice test and wanted to review the items she had missed. We analyzed her mistakes and discovered that almost all were related to vocabulary. Over the years, Gina and I have talked about the strength she has in knowing two languages. She can communicate with people in both Chinese and English. In fact, while she takes AP English Language and tutors Chinese students online to help them improve their English skills, she also studies AP Chinese! She has traveled to Taiwan many times with family and can spend weeks speaking nothing but Chinese. Then, she can come back to Michigan, slide back into her public school classroom, and navigate the language needed in all of her rigorous classes. This is a huge strength! However, since she holds in one hand all kinds of Chinese vocabulary and in the other hand all kinds of English vocabulary, neither hand has room for quite as many words as they could hold if they were cupped together holding words from just one language.

cupped hands

For example, although she holds the word ‘vague’, she may not also have obscure, dubious, ambiguous, and nebulous. Her hand simply doesn’t have the room. ‘Vague’ can usually do the job, except on the SAT, which may require Gina to know that obscure, vague, and ambiguous are all synonyms, and explicit is their antonym. The distinctions are challenging. So, we often spend our time working on vocabulary and helping Gina build images for new words so that she can put them on index cards and practice them when she’s not studying Chinese or psychology or one of the many other classes she is taking. She also has an English vocabulary app on her phone and plays freerice.com. She’s always trying to find ways to fit more words into her hands.

And then there’s “Kyle”. Kyle is fascinating to me. Although he is fluent in both Korean and English, although he speaks only Korean at home, although he is only in eighth grade, this kid has so. many. words. He did even when he was in sixth grade. I popped into our online room and asked him, “So what’s up? Your mom says you need some help with writing.”

“Well, my teacher says that I write too much. She says I need to be more concise.”

I’m chuckling to myself right now because in eighth grade, my teachers way back in the 70s didn’t expect me to write paragraphs and essays. I certainly hadn’t been given any feedback on my writing because I hadn’t produced any, but if I had, I am quite sure my teachers would have said I needed to be more concise.

“So what kind of writing are we talking about here — in class writing? or more formal writing?”

“Both.” Kyle is a striking young man — crisp haircut, sharp glasses, angular features. And he’s almost always deadpan. He cracks me up.

“Ok, so give me a typical in-class prompt.”

“Is The Giver a dystopian or a utopian novel?”

Again, I’m laughing inside. I don’t think I knew what ‘dystopian’ was until I taught Brave New World, but I digress.

So, together we built a very structured response to that prompt — topic sentence, three supporting points, and two pieces of evidence for each point. When we were finished, I looked at his face, read it, and said, “Pretty boring, huh?” He cracked a slight smile. “Well, tell me how you might’ve answered that question.” He admitted that he would’ve rambled and that his points would’ve been all over the place. “Ok! And that is what your teacher is asking you to work on! So, although it might be boring, I want you to practice this format for a while. Once you have the format, you can begin to experiment a little.”

He then shared a current assignment he is working on — a story told in two voices from two points of view. He chose to write about a hunter and a deer — one page for each character to tell the story of one day in the woods where they have an encounter. It’s vivid, and the language is clean.

“Kyle! This is beautiful. Your words are making me picture this snow-covered woods — I can even hear the hunter’s boots crunching in the snow! I can see him lift his bow, reach for an arrow, and take aim. This is fabulous!”

“She says we need to have sensory language, two adjective clauses, two adverb clauses, and ….” He’s reading from a list, discounting my praise.

We walked through his essay, which truly was well-written, particularly for a rough draft, and especially for an eighth grade bi-lingual student. We found his sensory language. I showed him how to combine his sentences by way of adjective and adverb clauses, and I pointed out how he had included the stylistic elements that his teacher was looking for. And then I said what I often tell writers who have too many words.

“I want to challenge you to make this even more concise. Right now this essay has 1000 words. I want you to cut that count by 10%. You have written a great essay, but play my game with me. See if you can cut 10% of the words, and then notice what impact that has on your story.

“Also, for your in-class writing, I want you to practice that format for a while. Learn the discipline, then you can experiment more.”

“So in other words, follow the rules and forget my voice,” he said pointedly.

“Well, no! Your voice is fantastic and natural. I don’t want you to lose your voice. And you won’t. As a matter of fact, when you practice this discipline, I think you will find more room for your voice.”

And he gave me that deadpan look again.

“Try it,” I smiled.

Gina is trying to expand her vocabulary, Kyle is trying to rein his in. Both are going to take work — practice, discipline, and courage. It takes real guts to admit that you don’t know everything — that you could learn something.

But when we do — when we admit that we have more to learn, when we listen to the voice of our mentors, and when we utilize that expert advice — we are transformed.

When I met Gina in the summer of 2015, she was timid. She gave me one word answers and was struggling to do schoolwork because each sentence was labored. Yesterday, when I asked what she’s been doing, she said, “During first semester we worked mostly on rhetorical analysis, but since Christmas we have started writing — what do you call them — oh, yeah, arguments.” She, an adolescent, has been leaning into her language process for three and a half years, and she is seeing the pay-off.

When I first met Kyle, he reminded me of my young self. He had a quick answer to almost everything. When he didn’t know the answer, he had several strategies for faking his way through. Now, at the ripe old age of 13, he is beginning to acknowledge that he has room to grow. He articulated the areas that had been identified by his teacher, and he at least considered the strategies that I offered him.

What a delight I have to witness their transformational journeys. And no, the metaphor isn’t lost on me. I, too, have admitted that I don’t know everything, that I have much, much more to learn. It’s taken practice, dedication, and courage, but I’m already beginning to see glimpses of transformation.

And yes, I did try to cut 10% of my words.

let the wise listen and add to their learning,
    and let the discerning get guidance—

Proverbs 1:5

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