A Classroom’s Universal Language
How many times have you heard the expression ‘music is a universal language’? As a music lover and multilingual individual, I cannot agree more. Yet, besides being a music lover, I also love to move to its rhythm and, therefore, understand that when dancing, one needs to cope with a partner, coordinate moves, feel the music and become one. Music, two bodies, one rhythm, altogether in one moment.
Music is a universal language, and language shapes our worldview. What a fascinating pair of ideas that, for those of us that work in multilingual environments, seems to be our daily bread. But if we are unable to speak one of them, how can we sing it or be part of the dance? And, most importantly, what if students are not able to cope with the rhythm of the music we dance to in the classroom? How can we find a common ground in which we learn the steps, and the melodies and truly become part of this tempo?
Many teachers would look at my current learning and teaching scenario as a scary place to be: too many languages, too many backgrounds, many children who do not understand what I am saying, etc. Nonetheless, I have found it to be a magical opportunity to learn about the universal language in schools: support.
The layers of the galaxy called language defy differentiation. I don’t even get to be the superhero that I can be at times when I am able to generate learning scenarios in which students learn in their personal style. We find students who possess the language skills to access all kind of information and be an integral part of any inquiry process; we can find students who can engage in any kind of social interaction, but their language skills are not ripe enough to understand academic language/content; and we have students who do not have the most basic communication skills, and they might have different mother tongues, which means their perception and understanding of the world can be quite different.
Likewise, teachers are essential variables in this scenario because they might be able to speak one of the languages of the classroom and hence devise ways to help students; but how about the situations in which teachers cannot speak the language(s) that serve as satellites in their classroom? When these teachers understand that children are not able to lead, and accommodate to keep students from not enjoying the dance, they begin to speak this invisible language that no linguistic system can describe in detail- support.
Speaking ‘support’ fluently, to me, means:
- Modifying our learning habits and creating a channel of communication to establish connections with our learners.
- Demonstrating empathy for they are learning to speak in our language, and that should be a gift to us. (Are we learning to speak theirs?)
- Using language (or any means of communication) with heart-felt intentions, trying to express things that matter and helping students to figure out what is expected of them.
- Figuratively walk alongside students, empowering them to move forward and growing. Their challenge is our challenge.
- Understanding that not being able to communicate one’s ideas can be frustrating and one’s body can only hold so much emotional, academic, social and personal pressure.
- Finding ways to help students internalize tools and strategies that will help them survive and become independent in the classroom. These habits can go beyond the development of habits and attitudes, and can even include communication channels between teachers and students.
- Reflecting on the choice we’ve made as educators, which includes helping children discover and explore the wonders of learning, as well as our role as learners and indefatigable creators of learning tools.
- Realizing that changing or adjusting one’s language is not enough. Our voice needs to sound welcoming, inviting and empowering enough for students to feel they are in a safe environment.
- Being aware of the impact of our gestures, our tone of voice, the feelings we project and the emotions we welcome, as our learning culture is shared by the words we utter, and how react to the ideas everyone shares.
- Serving as a filter between parents’ expectations and reality, for we all know how important it is to become multi-lingual and multi-cultural, but we should not ignore that the human connections will shape the way we will use our brain and our heart when we relate to others.
Have you seen the light in children’s eyes when they become aware of how teachers and other become engaged with what they’re sharing? The relevance of moments like this is like parents’ joyful explosion as they see their child’s first step, or as meaningful and uplifting as a couple’s first flawless set of passionate moves in tango.
Have you stopped to think about the life-changing moment when children realize they can communicate with teachers and notice how teachers and they are one heart beating in unison? If we could look at those children’s brains at this moment, we’d see a busy spider weaving so rapidly, so passionately, and in all directions, for there is so much she wants to connect in order to retain it, in order to internalize it, in order to make it hers.
I am still unsure of the genre this universal language symphony and dance belongs to, for there are ups and downs; there are moments of noise and moments of silence; there are sounds that express ideas that words can’t; and there are words that create images many pairs of eyes haven’t seen. I do not know if this language sounds like mariachi or fado to students, but I bet it’s the eclectic mélange of the stories they experience what encourages them to be able to speak through the perfect, continuous and compound tenses of support.