Like many adults who took a "foreign" language class in middle school and high school, I, unfortunately, am not bilingual.  I took Spanish for six years, and although I remember number, colors and a few phrases I am not able to effectively converse in the language.  6 years, nearly 700 hours! I assure you, I was never uncomfortable in those classes. 

I often tell students and parents that I want our students to be uncomfortable in class. Although I always include a preceding phrase such as "a little bit", the statement can result in some curious looks directed my way.  And then I explain:  Learning isn't easy.  It requires our brains to process and code new information that may seem to contradict previous understandings or knowledge.  In the classroom setting, true learning takes place in the area between what a child can already do or demonstrate, and what the child can only do with assistance- the zone of discomfort (or the zone of proximal development).  If the work or task is too easy, we are bored and disinterested.  If it is way above our capability we are frustrated and confused.  Either way, learning does not take place.   For optimal learning to take place the task must be challenging to the student and require them to seek new understandings, build upon previously learned skills and work to find solutions and comprehension.  It is our task as teachers to provide each student with this type of experience, and the role of the student to have the courage to embrace the discomfort that comes with new material and concepts, to seek assistance from those that can help, and to reach beyond the limits of what was thought to be possible. 

In the past ten years or so, world language education has undergone a significant transformation.  Gone are the days of text-book driven vocabulary lessons that did little to prepare us to effectively communicate in an increasingly global, or flat, world.  In today's classroom, even at the middle school level, it is expected that the language of study will be the only language spoken in the class (with some directional cues provided in English).  This instructional approach to language education significantly increases our ability to achieve the goal of developing multi-lingual students.  Why? Because it is uncomfortable.  If I had to move to France I know that it would be hard for me to get by given my current comprehension level of the French language.  I know that in order to effectively function, I would have to learn the language.  Yes, I am sure I could get by with my English, but without speaking the native language my opportunities for success and enjoyment would be limited. This discomfort that I would feel, would be the motivation I would need to learn the language.  When there is a "felt need" to learn, the likelihood that new, high-level, learning taking place will increase.

This week, approximately thirty-five students from France will be visiting our town.  I am sure that these students will demonstrate an impressive understanding of the English language but it is undeniable that they will be "uncomfortable".  In their brief stay in the United States they will be forced to depend on their knowledge of English to interact with peers and host families and to better understand American traditions, past-times, norms and sites.  I applaud them for the courage it will take to rely on a non-native language to get the most of their adventure.  As is my goal for students in all classrooms, these students will have to overcome their discomfort by developing, practicing and refining skills that make them more effective at what they do.  To continue with the comparison between their experience and the general classroom setting, these students will have to take some risks and even accept making a mistake or two in order for true learning to take place.  

As a school community we are excited to host our special guests from across the sea and we look forward to providing a comfortably uncomfortable experience.

Related Resources:

Brain Rules:  an easily digestible primer on how the brain works and what we can do to increase its performance.

The Teenage Brain