Looking in: language teaching at its best

By , Education editor of The Christian Science Monitor

They've always taught foreign languages here at Phillips Andover Academy. This year, nearly 1,200 ninth- through-12th-graders may choose from French, Spanish, Latin, German, Russian, Greek, or Italian (more about the Italian class later).

The 30 foreign-language teachers, each fluent in the language he is teaching as well as English, and some of them fluent in several languages, are eager to talk about their strengths. The teaching, all of it, even for beginners, is done in the language itself. Yes, each teacher uses his own "style," but the general method is similar.

Text materials are used only as a base for a multitude of experiences in the language under study. The approach is linguistic; it's also cultural; it's also literary; it's also conversational.

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The classrooms couldn't be sparser at Andover. Go into the German room and the furnishings are three German posters and chairs with writing arms set in a semicircle. Go into the Spanish room and it's three Spanish posters and a semicircle of chairs.

There is a language laboratory, and it is heavily used.

But classroom teaching by the three teachers whose classes I visited (and I was led to believe these were "typical") was superb. It was, simultaneously, old-fashioned and modern. The very best of teaching ideas were used, as was the best of the tried and true of intensive language experience.

The Spanish class had its usual mix of students, with two exceptions -- one Spanish-surname youngster whose home is in Spanish Harlem and one Chicano from California. As an English-speaker would take an English class, these Spanish- speakers were taking a Spanish class. They were, at once, learners and resources.

Talk in the teacher's room is serious, and it's all about doing the best job possible. There's no question that the student should hear only French, or Spanish, or German, or . . . . And no question that pupils should learn to translate; learn to read and write; learn to speak with a correct accent.

One point the language teachers thought needed emphasizing. If a student did not understand, then the explanation must not be in English (as though that were the language of understanding), but in the language being taught. Students should have it reinforced over and over that the correct meaning of a Spanish phrase could be understood only in Spanish.

And as I moved from Spanish to Italian to German I watched these hardworking teachers work their miracles on bright prep-school students.

But it was the Italian class that was the marvel of marvels. Vince Pascucci explained to his 17 students, in Italian, that I represented a United Nations-type problem: I spoke and understood no Italian, only English.

He appointed one student to interpret for me and invited the class, while he ran an errand, to interview me and find out just why I was visiting their school. They asked good questions and the session went smoothly.

Back came il signore Pascucci, and the whole class sang part of the opera "Don Giovanni." From this the class moved into pairs and carried out a dialogue between a traveler and a passenger agent. From there to a lesson in the sound of "c" and "g" in certain cases and in a variety of languages.

More singing; more conversations; more waving of the arms and hands, with the students both looking and sounding Italian.

And as we left the class, an explanation: These are seniors, and all have to have taken another language for three years. In this one year, they will have the equivalent of two years of Italian, will be tested thus, and earn appropriate credit.

And even though my visit to the school was in late November, these beginning- Italian students were already fluent.

When the teacher was out of the room and when there was a gap in the students' questions, I got off one of my own, appropriately translated into Italian by "my" interpreter.

"Why had they taken this particular class, this particular language?"

"Simple," was the translation back. "He's the best teacher."

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