Teachers: Pioneers of Cultural Bridge Building

Recently at the ACTFL conference in San Diego we listened to Rick Steves talk about the power of travel. It was a compelling conversation that got me thinking a lot about language and the pioneers of cultural bridge building that we call teachers. I am not sure we focus enough on the power of teaching languages in schools, the impact of immersing the student in a culture and giving them a set of tools so that they can communicate in that culture. How encouraging it is to see how students’ lives and career decisions can change as a result of a teachers guidance, enthusiasm, and care.

I remember my French teacher to this day and I wasn’t a great student. He taught me the power to take chances, to take risks in communicating, and he told me never to feel foolish. Mistakes are part of the fun in coming to grips with the language. I have made many mistakes – some funny and some with dire shopping consequences! But it never stopped me from going for it!

We had a reception that evening in San Diego for people interested in travel. Lots of familiar experienced travelers, our pioneers, and others coming to us for the first time. I remember saying that for me it all started with a verb conjugation. It was sort of like getting your passport. It opened up the world and then I got to connect all of those things that I had memorized (and I had to memorize a lot) into real life situations – being there, practicing, making mistakes, and understanding that it was fun. Here’s the thing, language cannot be taught effectively in a vacuum. Yes you may get a 10/10 on the test, but if you have not experienced the interactions, smelled the scents of a marketplace, taken the risk of talking to a vendor, or asked directions, then what purpose is the language for. In this day and age, and especially after the tragedy of Paris, we sometimes find ourselves moving away from these important steps partly because of fear.

So I say, imagine a world where we all get a 10/10 for our Spanish, French, German, and Italian, but we never actually speak to a Spanish, French, German, or Italian person. We had never connected nor ever experienced the culture. It all started and basically ended with a verb. Not good. Travel is essential to connect the dots and connect the culture. Seeing what you have learned in the classroom actually opens a window to a different world and creates a greater understanding of that world. That frankly makes our world a better place for everyone. It provides a platform for hope and tolerance and that is pretty important. Travel changes lives. For sure. What’s so impressive is that it starts in a classroom with a Pioneer language teacher who takes us all on a magic carpet ride. A journey most of us will remember forever.

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