The secret language of Language


June 16, 2012 by readlisaread

I was telling a colleague about my coining of the phrase “Generation Meh”. We got into a conversation about why so many of our students seem to be, well, slugs.  They are nice enough kids, their homelife is no better or worse than most kids these days. They, mostly, have enough to eat and a safe place to sleep. Yet, trying to engage them is so difficult. And getting them to push, creatively, beyond that first level of engagement is equally difficult.  It’s not necessarily about being interested and pushing boundaries, it’s about seeing a rich landscape in a learning opportunity….and so many of our students don’t see the possibilities. In stark contrast, is the 20% or so of our student body who are in the French Immersion stream.  In the main, there are no particular differences between the two groups, although there is a higher degree of parental involvement in the French stream, there are the same number of social issues facing both sets of kids.  And so, how to account for the consistently higher calibre of work, the passion and the energy the French Immersion students put into their assignments, the creativity, humour and just energy they exude?  Why, given the same assignment to 2 sets of English classes, does one group create a stunning array of colourful, imaginative, thought provoking examples, and the other… well… theirs pretty well meet the criteria. This activity had buy-in– it was a reflective biography-type assignment, and all the students were engaged in sharing their own history, likes and dislikes.  The same exemplars were provided both groups, and likewise they had the some time, space and materials. One of the activities in the assignment was to illustrate an early school memory. Over and over in conversations with both groups of kids, my friend found the same thing: The Frenchies (as we affectionately call them) seemed more able to enthusiastically recount more memories, in richer detail, and with great interest and animation.  The English kids, however, struggled to come up with more than a few examples, and didn’t seem as able to access memories, either as distant, or in as great detail as their compatriots.

We considered the reasons for it, and of course the answer is obvious: Language.  It is irrelevant what the second language is, the magic is in the process.  My own kids are traveling through the French Immersion system, so naturally I had a vested interest in the conversation.  But I thought my kids were different because they were teacher-kids (yet another subset that bears study).  I had always read and sang to them, and talked, all the time, to them, with them, at them. I thought my awesome parenting was what made the difference, but I don’t think I can take all the credit on this one.  What is the big difference between regular school and immersion programs?  Talking.  The students are encouraged to talk, all the time, to the teacher, and to each other, and out loud. In the non-immersion classroom, by and large the goal is to get them to sit quietly and listen.  Certainly, speaking and presenting learning orally is part of the curriculum in both cases, but only in the Immersion classroom is a student actually rewarded for speaking in his or her second language, and encouraged to reward peers for the same behaviour.  And… since we know memory is rooted in language, it only makes sense that the higher the fluency, the higher the level of deposit in the memory bank….

OK, not every kid hands out chocolate on the picket line....


  1. Sheri Kinney says:

    Hmm, interesting.

  2. Jamie Billingham says:

    Hey Lisa,

    I’m not convinced it’s generation meh 🙂 We just did an engagement session with about 150 kids and they were pretty darn engaged and very clear about whet they wanted and expected from their education system.

    I am convinced that language use is critical to forming rich memories though. The body holds memories also, but if you don’t have the language for experiences they become unspeakable memories. You have to be able to use the language to explain experiences to yourself to be able to, at a later date, recall and share those memories verbally. Kids should have to talk in class, the teacher should be quiet 🙂


  3. Patti says:

    It’s funny that I found this post on your blog as I had a discussion similar to this with another college professor about a recent cohort of law students. We had two sections learning the same thing, similar class size and diversity in age, gender, race, etc. One of the groups was fantastic: engaged, excited, eager and on board. The other group was more like night of the living dead. Neither of us could get Group B excited about anything. Ever. We attributed part of it to a “group think” mentality, noting that the classes seemed to follow the mentality of the “leaders”. Group A’s class leaders were on fire and ready to learn and absorb! Group B’s leaders just wanted to pass and get out. Maybe I need to get them talking more…

  4. readlisaread says:

    Patti– you might be onto something there, WRT leadership. Certainly, our strong leaders come from the French stream too. (Along with a healthy sense of entitlement, in lots of cases) How fascinating that you have seen this same phenomenon, with no clear differentiation. !!!

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