Language teaching expert, Jason Levine, talks to us about foreign languages, teaching and using hip-hop music to make learning fun.
You’ve had quite an eclectic career path.
Yes, I’ve been a disc jockey, an English language instructor, a teacher trainer and a materials developer. And I also write chants for Oxford University Press. I’ve been lucky in that I figured out a way to bring all my interests together in my work.
You were a classroom teacher first, right?
Yes, I started teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Manhattan and that was a great way to learn the ropes. New York City is a great place to teach because you have the opportunity to work with children, adults, immigrants and international students from around the world.
How did you make the leap from the classroom to the administrative side of education?
The more I got into teaching, the more I found myself wanting to create my own curriculum and materials. So, I partnered with a former student to found a language school. Later I directed the American Language Center at Bloomfield College in New Jersey where I got to branch out a bit by working with GED and Head Start teachers. And now I’m the Academic Director for CAMPUS Education.
What was the genesis of your company, ColloLearn?
I’m always looking for ways to make learning fun and easy. Games, charts, posters — I tried everything. Then, one day, in an ESL class, I said “always” and a student shouted out “Coca Cola”. He’d heard the “Always Coca Cola” slogan so many times that it stuck, without him making any effort to learn it. It was the same with other expressions. When I said “just” my students didn’t say “a minute” or “a little bit”. Instead, they said, “Just do it!” I said, “Kentucky” and they responded “Fried Chicken”.
A real “aha” moment, wasn’t it?
Yes. I immediately started thinking of universally appealing activities, things that people all over the world like to do again and again. Listening to music made the most sense. After all, look how successfully Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock use music to help kids learn. I started using my skills as a drummer to make tunes to help my students learn.
How did you come up with the name Collo?
Collo is short for collocation. Collocations are pairs or small groups of words that occur together frequently in spoken and written language. English expressions like have a party, make a mistake, and get a cold are collocations. Every language has its own distinct set of collocations and that’s one thing that makes learning a new language tricky. English speakers say get the phone, but in Spanish it’s take the phone. In English we say take medicine while Korean speakers say eat medicine. As children we naturally learn the correct collocations.
So videos were the next step?
That’s right. I decided to make and post videos of my ColloTunes on YouTube, along with mini-lesson plans. The videos became popular rather quickly, leading me to start my business, mainly as a way to market myself and my materials.
You’ve got fans as far away as Morocco. How did that happen?
Several middle school and high school teachers in Morocco wrote to tell me that they regularly incorporated my videos into their English language lessons. Hip hop music is very popular among Moroccan youth. That contact led to an invitation from the U.S. government to visit Morocco to teach and train.
You founded your own language company with a Japanese partner. Any cultural insights to share?
I worked with Japanese people in New York City nearly every day for more than five years. Often I was the only non-Japanese person in the room. Over time, I realized how culture affects communication styles and how my communication style could seem immodest, even arrogant, to a Japanese person, whereas a fellow American would think I was proud and self-confident. I grew to prefer the Japanese way of expressing pride in less obvious ways. I also learned that it’s usually better to apologize from the heart when you mess up than it is to search for an excuse.
Any recommendations for readers interested in a career as a foreign language teacher?
A great first step would be to watch videos of teachers in action on YouTube. There are so many wonderful teachers and lessons out there. Just do a YouTube search for ESL, foreign languages, teaching abroad, etc. The most popular videos come up first; and more often than not, this is the best stuff. For anyone considering teaching English as a foreign language, I strongly recommend the CELTA training program. The Peace Corps is another fantastic way to get involved teaching overseas.
Got a question for Jason? Please share it in the comments box below.
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