When the Peace Corps trained us to be English teachers, they repeatedly told us to avoid translating our lessons. By teaching English words and phrases and then translating them in Malagasy, the Peace Corps argued that our students were not actively engaging in the subject matter. They also argued that we teachers should be exposing our American tongues to the students as much as possible.
I followed the advice for the first semester with my middle school students. They were learning English for the first time, so I thought it’d be easy to teach “Hello,” “What’s up?” and “My name is…” without translations. When I gave them their semester exam, they did fine, but I still had the feeling they didn’t fully understand the material. In the streets my students would call out “Good morning!” in the afternoon and “Good afternoon!” in the morning. When I’d reply and ask “How are you?” they didn’t know how to respond. I suspected that my students committed all my lessons to memory without knowing the meanings behind them.
After returning from IST and Christmas vacation, I decided to tweak my teaching method. I’d teach the lessons entirely in English and then ask the students to translate the key points into Malagasy as a comprehension check. While the merits of the total immersion method are vast, it can be an obstacle for comprehension especially at a novice level. And although my 600 students are well-mannered, they don’t have the motivation to learn English to the extent that the total immersion method demands.
In the first week of the second semester I stood up and said in Malagasy, “When you see me in the streets, do not say ‘Good afternoon’ in the morning. In the morning, say ‘Good morning.’ In the afternoon, say ‘Good afternoon.’ In the evening, say ‘Good evening.’” The light bulbs that flashed above my students’ heads that week could’ve been seen from space. In following weeks they seemed to be memorizing my lessons while also understanding them.
I’m learning as much from my students as they’re learning from me.