The Lamp

A Holderness School journal committed to critical reflection and fostering conversation around issues connected to independent schools and education in general.

Non-Native Speakers: 20th Century Instructors Teaching 21st Century Skills

Kristen Fischer, 2014-2015 van Otterloo Faculty Chair Recipient


“Ms. Fischer, I don’t understand number three.”

I look up, a bit surprised.  “Oh?  Why not?”

“I just don’t understand what you mean by that question.”


Uh-oh.  The student asking this is a native Spanish speaker.  If she doesn’t understand the question, I probably didn’t write it correctly.  My palms start to sweat a little as I walk over to take a closer look at the question she’s referring to.  I read it.  My stomach flips as I realize what’s going on.  I misused “qué” and “cuál” (what and which) in the question, leading to her confusion.  We discuss it and I clarify to her what I mean by the question. 


What I don’t say out loud to her is that, while it may now be obvious, I don’t fully understand the distinction between those two interrogatives.  I also don’t say out loud how much I dread these moments.  I am a non-native Spanish speaker, and I teach advanced Spanish.  Having a native or a heritage speaker* in class is both wonderful and awful.  These students add immeasurably to the experience of their peers and their teachers; they learn many new things about the structure and use of their own language, often thinking about it critically for the first time in their lives: it’s wonderful!  As their teacher, for me it can also be awful.  How dare I presume to teach them their own language?  What if I teach something wrong?  How is it possible for me to know enough about more than 20 cultures, geographical regions, histories, accents and dialects to speak intelligently about them all?  What if they challenge me in front of the class and I can’t respond? 


Over the years I have in fact developed a response to these anxieties:  we are all learning in the classroom, this non-native teacher included.  Students can, and do, teach their teachers and their classmates.  Learning a language is a lifelong endeavor, whether it’s your first language or your fourth.  It’s impossible to know everything about a language, ever, never mind the fact that languages are constantly evolving and what’s acceptable or correct today may not necessarily be so in the future.  I have come to terms with my own doubts… not that I don’t still get sweaty palms on occasion.


During my chair year, one of the things I have studied is instructional technology in the foreign language classroom.  As with any subject, my readings and projects have been full of new terms, vocabulary words I had seen before but not known – and plenty I’d never seen before (“heuristic” leaps to mind) – and myriad acronyms I’ve had to learn:  PLN, PBL, UDL, TPACK, to name just a few.  I’ve not only had to learn new vocabulary but also new behaviors and approaches to the technological problems and projects my professors have presented.  Along the way, I’ve noticed parallels between my position as a non-native language teacher and my position as a non-native technology user.  Unsurprisingly, there is a name for that:  I am a digital immigrant.  At Holderness, I’m in pretty good company.  All we faculty and staff who were born, raised and educated without computers or the internet are digital immigrants.  All of our students and our young teachers are, of course, digital natives (Reilly and Robison, 2008, p. 98).

As a digital immigrant, I find myself with a relatively low digital proficiency compared to my students and young colleagues.  I approach technological glitches with 20th century problem-solving skills.  Recently I had a conversation with a young man (a digital native) about just this.  I confessed that when I’m confronted with a tech issue that needs to be solved, I am sometimes paralyzed into inaction.  My thought process includes:  “If I click that, I may lose everything!” and “What if I do something wrong and mess up my computer?” For me, the machine is so complicated that I am scared to even close the document, the program, or my laptop, and usually end up scurrying to the tech office for help.  This young man, on the other hand, saw such issues not as problems but as puzzles to be solved.  The computer, he said, was designed to help humans accomplish tasks, and the solutions to tech issues lie within our ability.  I equate my position with a language student being unfamiliar with the target language culture:  the student and I may know plenty of vocabulary, but the culture presents us with unfamiliar behaviors and mindsets that we have to learn and get accustomed to in order to function successfully and effectively within that culture.


As a language teacher, I am a full believer in the power of immersion.  Some of my least able students over the years have become proficient to a previously unimaginable degree simply by immersing themselves in the language for some weeks or months.  This spring, I have immersed myself in technology and notice my increasing facility with manipulating my computer and approaching issues as puzzles rather than problems.  Not only am I learning the technological culture, it is gradually becoming second nature to me, just as linguistic idiomatic phrases do with daily exposure.

So now, in the 21st century information age, I am not just a non-native Spanish teacher, I am also a non-native technology “speaker” and teacher. As it does in my Spanish classroom, this situation also produces some anxiety and doubt.  As a digital immigrant, can I be a worthy teacher of technology?  My students have gained their digital proficiency much as they learned their native language:  by constant practice and exposure, absorbing skills and behaviors with the same motivation to communicate and be social beings.  How can I, a digital immigrant, effectively teach them anything about technology? 


One answer to this question is something I learned in the first week of my introductory class, and I confess its discovery gave me some pleasure:  our students may be digital natives, but that doesn’t mean they are digitally literate (Curtis, 2013).  I do have something to teach them!  As they always have, our students need guidance and practice with critical thinking skills, which are especially important in the 21st century when we are constantly inundated with information.  Students need to learn to ask good questions about the origins, biases and purposes of the information they receive.  They should know how easy to use and easy to access sites like Wikipedia and Google really work; just seeing and using them, even daily, doesn’t teach us that. 


Our digital native students are living, studying and soon to be working in a world that Jenkins (2009) calls a “participatory culture”; they need to learn how to share information appropriately and ethically.  Again, they don’t automatically learn this; they need guidance (as do many adults, I might add:  there are plenty of internet trolls out there).  Finally, we teachers, whether immigrants or natives, need to teach our students how to effectively solve technological issues, not just within a particular program but in any situation.  In this case some of our students are certainly already mightily proficient, and I am willing to take the student seat and learn from them, too.


Who knows what innovations are to be discovered and created in our students’ future?  Perhaps they will be a different kind of immigrant to their children’s native in the next iteration of what technology brings to our lives.  So just as I model a life-long language learner for my Spanish students, I can also model a curious, willing and even occasionally bold technology user in my status as digital immigrant.  And maybe as I gain proficiency, those sweaty palms will go away.


 *heritage speaker – a student who has grown up with a close relative – often a grandparent or one parent - who speaks Spanish (or another language) with him or her; the student thus understands and speaks this language well without being fully fluent.


Curtis, P.  (2013).  Digital Native Does Not Mean Digital Literate.  Retrieved from

Jenkins, H. (2009).  Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media education for the   21st century.  Retrieved from     A3E0-4B89-AC9C-E807E1B0AE4E%7D/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF

Robison, A. and Reilly, E.  (2008)  Extending Media Literacy:  How Young People Remix and Transform Media  to Serve Their Own Interests.   In Youth Media Reporter.  Retrieved from 023920