To Wow and To Woo: Training self-directed language-getters

What if all our students

-knew what they needed to get in order to advance in proficiency,

-knew how to get it,

-got it,


-experienced joy in the process?

Much of my work in the classroom for the last several years, and in teacher workshops in the last three or four, has been devoted to training a generation of such students. Evan Gardner, language revitalization specialist and inventor of Where Are Your Keys?, with whom I’ve been honored to work quite a bit in the last few years, has been kind enough to say, “if everyone taught language like Justin Slocum Bailey, we would have a world of self-directed polyglots.” This has been an inspiring challenge to try to live up to, and one I’ve enjoyed tackling with colleagues around the world.

In this post, I want to continue sharing this challenge by raising some diagnostic questions, ones I hope you can answer in dialogue with your students, with your colleagues, and, if you are interested, with me!

1. Do your students view the shared purpose of taking your course as advancing in linguistic and intercultural proficiency? (I’m referring to the “immediate” or “proximal” purpose. Students may also have or develop wonderful real-life goals such as “to interact with Spanish speakers in my community,” “to travel respectfully and joyfully in French-speaking Africa,” “to do international business,” “to watch TV with my Italian grandma,” etc.)

2. Do your students know what it means to advance in proficiency?

3. Do your students know what it takes, in theory, to advance in proficiency?

4. Do your students know their current proficiency? (N.B. Whenever I talk about current proficiency, I mean the proficiency of individual students. There’s no such thing as a class full of people who have the exact same proficiency.)

5. Do your students know, whatever their current proficiency, what they need to be able to do in order to advance?

6. Do your students know how to get what they need (suitable input, meaningful opportunities to function in the language, accessible target-language media) from you, from each other, and from other sources? Do they know both on a macro level (e.g., what sort of text they might want to read and where to find it) and on a micro level (e.g., how to get someone to repeat more slowly or to rephrase what they just said)?

7. Are your course, your class time, and your assignments set up in such a way that students at varying proficiency levels are likely to advance? Remember, every class with more than one student has students at varying proficiency levels.

8. Have your students caught the proficiency bug? They don’t need to use or think of the term proficiency. Are they excited to be able to understand and use the language in ways they can’t yet? Are they excited to be able to interact with people and content they didn’t know before?

A lot goes into making the answer to each of these questions YES. But I’m convinced it can be done, and I’m convinced it’s something our language classes need.

I’ll let you ponder these questions with whoever can help you ponder them, but I’ll leave you with a related idea:

To wow and to woo

Few students enter a language class, especially a required one, eager to advance in proficiency, and especially few come with eagerness that isn’t tied to the desire for a particular grade. Telling uninterested students that knowing another language will boost their brainpower or their employability will bring in only a few more. For our students to travel the path of proficiency as “love goes toward love,”* we need to wow and to woo:

We need to wow students with the capabilities of language itself and, especially, with students’ own ability to acquire and use it successfully and joyfully.

We need to woo students, in the loving, trusting setting we create, with the delights of the language and with the prospect of acquiring more of and doing more with the language.

More on wowing and wooing in this short video on my teacher Mantra 14!

*Romeo and Juliet II.ii.159

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