In this section, Peter Weise shares two strategies he uses to engage students in communicative activities during the course: 1) emphasizing the value of making mistakes and 2) varying the course structure to keep things interesting.
Not Being Perfect Is a Good Thing in Language Learning
This course is project- and discussion-based. It is not a passive learning experience. The first thing I do to encourage students to fully engage with the material is to make sure they understand that they can’t be perfect, that they won’t be perfect, and that not being perfect is actually a good thing in language learning. Given a choice, most students would elect to sit and say nothing until they know that what they can say is grammatically perfect. But that doesn’t help you learn at all!
You can’t learn a language by passively listening. You learn by participating and by making mistakes. I try to impart to them that nobody’s perfect, not even native speakers, and that language learning never ends. Even as a native speaker, you keep adding new words to your vocabulary, adding new constructions to your lexicon, and adapting to regional language varieties. It’s not like in German I, II, III, and IV we learn the language and then in 21G.410 Advanced German we focus on content so our language must now be perfect. That doesn’t happen, because that’s not how language works.
I emphasize that during discussions error-free language use is not the focus; rather, the deciding factor in whether students’ language use is “good” or not is the degree to which they can communicate their message. Do people understand them? As long as people understand them, I don’t correct students during discussions. If their peers do not understand them, I may prompt them to rephrase their statement, but in general, I don’t emphasize precision during discussions. As long as they get their message across, I don’t nitpick. I want them to be comfortable with making mistakes.
Mix It Up to Keep Things Interesting
Another strategy I use to encourage students to fully engage with the communicative aspects of our course is to keep the class structure interesting. I switch our discussion formats frequently, alternating between partner discussions, small group discussions, and whole group discussions. I also sometimes have them engage in discussions standing in front of the board, where we’ve written material or vocabulary we want to use in our discussion. This technique gets students out of their comfortable sitting positions and focuses their attention on the target material because they can physically point to it on the board. It also feels casual. Students feel relaxed, and as noted above, in learning a language, it’s essential to feel at ease in order to not be afraid of making mistakes.