3. Language: You Know More—and Less—Than You Think
You Know More—and Less—Than You Think
When our students digest the statistics of how many English language learners are in U.S. classrooms, and when they confront the fact that students in their classrooms are likely to include learners with no or minimal English language skills, their first reaction is usually tinged with alarm: “How am I supposed to relate to these kids if they can’t understand what I say and I can’t understand what they say?” They worry that they will not be able to have any real conversation with English language learners—let alone find ways to teach them new academic content. Their concerns usually stem from their belief that they know nothing at all useful that would help them meet these challenges. We believe, however, that pre-service teachers generally know much more about language than they think.
Let’s take, for example, the question “What exactly do we mean when we use the term language?” To trigger thinking about that question, we sometimes show our students a video clip of a dog howling and ask: “Does that howling constitute a language?” Many students say yes, because the dog howls as a means of communication, just as humans use language. The howling signals to others such messages as “Danger!” or “I need company” or “I don’t like it here.” Other students argue that no, the howling is not a language, because human communication systems are different in...
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