The Power of Hearing Literature in the Original Language

“Certain students in my literature classes never say a word,” says CUNY professor Rachel Friedman in this thoughtful Chronicle of Higher Education article. The reasons vary: some are uninterested, some are unprepared (they desperately avoid eye contact), some are shy (they’re highly engaged but don’t speak up), and some are self-conscious about their command of the English language. 

One day Friedman asked if a student who spoke Spanish would read a Pablo Neruda poem (“Tonight I can write…”) aloud to the class. “Hands all over the room shot ferociously into the air, including several I hadn’t seen raised all semester,” says Friedman. She divided the poem between two women, and as they read, the rest of the class was transfixed as the language washed over them. When the reading was finished, students offered these comments: “It was more beautiful in Spanish” (this from a non-Spanish speaking student). “It made the poem more romantic.” “The Spanish is smoother.” “The words seem to belong together more.” “It’s the rhythm.” This led to a discussion of how Neruda’s poem, while lacking a regular rhyme scheme, somehow “attains a distinct rhythm through consonance and assonance,” says Friedman, “effects heard much more clearly in Spanish.” 

Many students in her class are English language learners, and having these two students read aloud in their native language, says Friedman, “reminded me that I often don’t get to view their work at its highest level. Of course I understand that they must be able to complete assignments in English, since they are at an American college. But I also think that excelling in moments (rare, for some) when they are comfortable in the classroom instills in them a crucial sense of pride and confidence in their daily efforts.” 

That night, Friedman read the Neruda poem in her rudimentary Spanish, looking up words and stumbling over phrases. “It proved a powerful way to appreciate some of my students’ challenges,” she says, “and reminded me that my job as a teacher is to continually seek ways to remind often-frustrated students of their capabilities.”

Later in the semester, when the class was studying Carlos Fuentes’s Aura, Friedman played five minutes of a recording of the author reading part of the novel in Spanish and asked Spanish-speaking students what differences they noticed between the original Spanish and their English translation. “The story in English is really easy, but it’s not in Spanish,” said a student who usually seemed half asleep. Another noticed that more words were used to make a point in Spanish than in English, which strengthened the dark and suspenseful story. Another noticed that the English translation of one sentence read, “Everything is the same,” whereas the original Spanish read “Nothing changes” – a significant difference. Another noticed that they had listened to Castilian Spanish, which is quite distinct from some of the dialects they spoke. 

Friedman has continued to use Spanish read-alouds and recordings, but has also had students listen to passages in Russian, German, and Greek. “The conversations that follow are briefer,” she says, “but the students still appear charmed while listening. As with the Spanish, I think they sense how much more naturally a text occupies its own language. Even if they do not understand the words, they connect with them. That makes sense. After all, this is where we all start with language – the sound and rhythm. This is also how many of us fall in love with great literature: It mesmerizes us, like music, on a visceral level. No matter how we attempt to deconstruct it, on some level its effect cannot fully be put into words.” 

“A Way Out of Silence” by Rachel Friedman in The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 21, 2013 (Vol. LIX, #40, p. B20), no free e-link


From the Marshall Memo #491

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Makes me think that we should be using Rachel Friedman's idea in elementary and secondary schools, as well.  Why not have our ELLs read something aloud in their native language, as we look for ways to help them make connections to the complex English literature required of the CCSS? If we truly want these learners to understand English text, our job is to help them activate their own background knowledge, with its cultural, linguistic, and familial differences, and to help them make connections.






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