Along the path to proficiency, we encounter many things in our classroom, in our department, and in the field. In this series, we would like to share some notes from the field from educators who have made an impact and have learned something impactful along their journey. Here they will share their notes from the field with us and how their learning has helped shape them, as well as its impact, as they help their students along the path to proficiency.

My career has taken me in many directions since I began my path to proficiency in junior high school, but for the past twenty years, I’ve had the great fortune of working with many teachers and administrators to plan and implement Dual Language Immersion and World Language programs. I’ve become particularly fond of working with Heritage Language speakers of Russian and other languages.

My personal path to proficiency started with learning French in junior high school using the Audiolingual Method (yes, I know, it was a long time ago). We never saw a word written in French for at least six weeks, but I longed for visual cues, so I tried to take notes on a single sheet of notebook paper (Como talley voo?). The next year (age 12) I signed up for an “Aural-Oral” course at the University of Washington Language Learning Center to learn Modern Greek. I spent several months on Tuesday evenings with a reel-to-reel tape recorder learning to pronounce Greek, understand some words and phrases, and (fortunately) how to write the alphabet and decode words in Greek. I guess I wasn’t close to proficient in either language, and I knew it.

When I was 16, I headed to Europe with a group of dancers and musicians to travel to the Balkans and become immersed in the language and culture. And immersed I was. My French came in very handy a few times (though more people spoke German), and my Greek helped me learn to read Serbian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian Cyrillic a little faster. Living and traveling in a country gives you ample opportunities to learn critical phrases, like “Ima vreme,” which means roughly, “There’s still time, no rush, all things in due time, slow down and smell the roses” and “Nema problema,” which is pretty much what it looks like, “No problem,” and generally means that there are probably lots of problems but “Ima vreme” to figure them out.

When I entered the University of Washington, I thought maybe I’d study French, but when the advisor heard that I’d learned to speak Macedonian (well, more or less…) he said I belonged in the Slavic Department, so that was the beginning of my career with Russian. In the Spring quarter of my freshman year, this thing called the Student Strike (Kent State 1970) happened. Our Russian instructor was strongly in support of it, so she canceled regular classes, but she agreed to meet once a week if we’d conduct the class entirely in Russian and talk about current events. I probably learned more from those 10 hours than I would have learned from the 40 hours of class that we skipped.

I had the chance to study in Leningrad (yes, the Soviet Union) for a summer. We had to sign a language pledge, and many of us stuck with it even when we didn’t really know enough to speak accurately. (I spent the first night in the dorm searching out “brick” water because I confused it with the word for “boiled.”) After entering graduate school, I became a Teaching Assistant for Russian. I could say that all my personal experiences on the path to proficiency flooded over me, and I committed to creating a powerful language learning environment for my students. I spoke only Russian in class (although I did not even know what ACTFL was or the 90% goal in the target language). I did everything I could to provide comprehensible input (long before I heard of Krashen). I listened to my students, encouraged them, taught them to read in Russian during the first week, and tried to get them genuinely engaged in the language and culture.

So, now I’m trying to help others on their path to proficiency. Because I’ve coordinated our state and district testing for Competency-Based Credits and the Seal of Biliteracy, I’ve spent hours proctoring language proficiency testing and reviewing and summarizing test results in more than fifty languages. I can see the difference between students who are confident of their language skills and those who doubt themselves (and that includes, I’m sorry to say, a lot of Heritage Language speakers).

The beautiful thing about this work is that I never have to think about assigning “grades” in the usual classroom sense. Students receive ratings on the ACTFL proficiency scale. If their writing is lower than other skills, I can encourage them to go do some more writing in their language, then come back and test again. Many of these are students who have had little formal instruction in their language. But if they are Heritage speakers, they may have become sensitive to criticism from native speaker parents and adults who assume they should be more “native like” in their mastery of the language. It is a challenge to get everyone more oriented to recognizing what the students CAN do in the language.

I also work extensively with Dual Language Immersion programs. In elementary school, there is a level of freedom to let the language develop “naturally” unhindered by grammar tests and grades because the graded subjects are the content areas like Math, Science, and Social Studies. I see students taking risks (and, yes, making mistakes) but they internalize the language, a lot like I did when I was a teenager in Macedonia. It can be messy, but very rewarding. Some students develop great proficiency, not only in listening and speaking but also in reading and writing.

But then they hit middle and high school. In some of our programs that means encountering traditional “foreign” language teaching (like I experienced when I started studying Russian at the university). It can be a shock to move from owning your language proficiency development to trying to fit into a method of learning that someone else (the teacher or the textbook) has prescribed for you. I see students getting bored, discouraged, and sometimes giving up. It breaks my heart.

So, I continue relentlessly to provide our language teachers with more professional development on proficiency and the path to proficiency. Those that “get” it transform their teaching and their students soar.

Dr. Michele Anciaux Aoki, International Education Administrator for Seattle Public Schools, is responsible for developing and supporting the ten international schools in the district and their K-12 Dual Language Immersion programs in Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish, as well as supporting all World Language teachers in the district. She serves as Co-Director of the Confucius Institute of the State of Washington, a partnership among the University of Washington, Seattle Public Schools, the Governor’s Office, and Hanban in China.