The Secrets of Teaching Foreign Tongues

By Shelley Stewart

Three of Alabama’s top foreign-language teachers share something in common—besides a proficiency in Spanish. All three began their careers as undergraduate students in UAB’s Hamlin1Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures.

Malinda O’Leary, Ph.D., now an assistant professor at UAB, and teachers Breanne Holland and Charli Lindley-Hamlin have each won a statewide award for excellence from the Alabama Association of Foreign Language Teachers (AAFLT) in 2011. In fact, UAB-connected teachers have swept the category for the past three years. So what is UAB’s secret to teaching foreign languages so effectively?


International Immersion

Immersing students in a different culture is essential, says Sheri Spaine Long, Ph.D., UAB professor of foreign languages. “Language is only the starting point for discovering the music, the books, the people.” Indeed, the department requires its students to participate in UAB’s Study Away program to help instill the love and use of language. “We help each student arrange a trip that meets his or her time and financial requirements because there’s no substitute for speaking the language day to day,” Spaine Long says.

The high level of fluency that students acquire enables them to converse with ease—and gain confidence. The three award-winning teachers demonstrate their confidence by advocating for foreign-language education with parents and local communities, Spaine Long says. “Good teachers tend to be leaders,” she notes.


OLearyForeign Perspectives

"The main benefit of language isn't about learning foreign words. It's about gaining a different perspective," says O'Leary, who was named the AAFLT Outstanding Foreign Language Teacher in the postsecondary category. "Doing the mental gymnastics and having multiple perspectives tends to make people more creative." O'Leary, who earned bachelor's and master's degrees from UAB, joined the UAB faculty in 2005.

As a teacher, O'Leary thinks of herself as a facilitator. "I gather the resources and bring them to the students," encouraging them to participate in music, art, drama, discussions, and other cultural enrichment programs offered through the UAB foreign languages department.

"Students must be engaged," adds Breanne Holland, a K-8 Spanish teacher at Birmingham's Highlands School and the recipient of the AAFLT K-12 award.

"They have to be shown that languages are useful so that they understand why they need to know it. It's important to add cultural information at every turn, in every class. Students love to learn about foreign cultures—it always draws them in."


Holland, who has taught for nine years and credits her UAB professors with inspiring her to teach, notes that it's vitally important to present information in a variety of ways. "Students have very different learning styles—auditory, visual, or kinesthetic," she says. She offers content-based learning, teaching in Spanish while students learn about the solar system, animal habitats, or Pablo Picasso, for instance.


The Language of BusinessHolland

"I never wanted to be a teacher," admits Charli Lindley-Hamlin, a Spanish teacher at Thompson High School in Alabaster who received this year's AAFLT Promising New Foreign Language Teacher Award. "Now I love it and never want to stop," she says. "I try to talk personally with every kid every day. Being able to influence a student before he or she goes out into the world is so cool, and I try to be a good role model. Still, I hope they remember having fun in my class."

Lindley-Hamlin points out that speaking other languages can bring economic benefits. "I tell my students that a huge percentage of our country speaks Spanish, and they will have an edge in the job market if they do, too," she says. "One student who had taken a single semester of Spanish was hired by a local restaurant because he was the only one who pronounced the menu items correctly." O'Leary agrees, saying, "the language of business is the language of the customer. Being able to speak that language greatly increases your chance for success."


UAB's foreign languages department includes several hundred students with language majors and several hundred more with minors. Seeing some of them become successful, award-winning teachers confirms that the UAB faculty's passion for foreign language produces good results, Spaine Long says. "We put a lot of energy and time into nurturing students, writing letters, and mentoring them in countless ways. On a low day, when you think you're not making an impact on anything," she says, "something like this is really rewarding."

(original article from UAB Magazine, June 2011)