On community language learning (CLL)

Charles Arthur Curran (1913-78), Roman Catholic priest and member of the Loyola University psychology faculty, receives credit for having developed community language learning (CLL), an offshoot of a “counseling-learning” approach he first wrote about in the 1950s. In his educational model, learners approach a new subject with a high affective filter. In fact, he writes that “any discussion of the learning process has really to start with the relation of conflict, hostility, anger, and anxiety to learning” (Curran 1983, 147). My sympathies lie with his empathetic approach, especially as it relates to those learning English as an additional language. For years I’ve admired the bravery of adult learners. For the most part, I’ve worked with Latino migrants who have transitioned to the United States, built and/or raised families, navigated schools, jobs, bureaucratic requirements, communal rites of passage, and a new language with the persistent knowledge that, in the view of many of the nation’s authorities, they are here illegally and could be forced to reckon with that status at any moment.

In these classrooms, therefore, I’ve come to see my role as helping to combat students’ own internal resistance, insecurities, and even shame at their identities as something “less than” a true American, whatever “true American” means. In contrast to Curran’s research and his characterization of “defensive learners” with “deep hostility” toward languages other than their own (1983, 149), whatever defensiveness I’ve witnessed appears to relate not to the language (English) itself but to these learners’ own awareness that they must study in secret and struggle for the chance to have a one-on-one linguistic exchange in the L2. Realistic practice outside the classroom, particularly for undocumented Latinas, whose job options typically keep them isolated or among clusters of other Spanish-speakers, is difficult to come by. In Georgia, where I spent more than five years teaching with community-based literacy and advocacy nonprofits, the state’s board of regents had progressively restricted undocumented students’ access to state universities, colleges, and then community colleges. Therefore, language instruction at places of worship or other nonprofits was their only option. Economic pressures largely kept private language institutions out of reach.

Mindful of this situation, I celebrated the students’ fluency in their native language. I regarded their fluency and expertise as a built-in resource. When I created materials, I emphasized the cultural traditions of México and Central America, rather than those of the United States, which, as longtime residents and as observers from afar, they already understood anyway. Therefore, I learned about and sampled Oaxacan chapulines (grasshoppers), flavored with garlic and lemon. We spoke, in English and Spanish, about the construction of household altars for Day of the Dead and about the particulars of a transplanted culture that, in parts of rural Georgia, helped sustain the Mexican sport of cockfighting by clandestinely raising gallos de combate for export. Students liked to provide examples of Spanglish and what they saw as bastardizations of Spanish verbs (lunchearchatear, etc.). In my opinion, any conversation about language facilitated interest in English. And, my ethos as a language teacher is that studying and practicing the students’ L1 is mandatory. I should be willing to do whatever I ask students to do.

The difficult balancing point for me is when to refer to useful points of comparison in Spanish—for example, the nearly identical constructions of present progressive (estoy manejando, I am driving) and other forms—and when to let students make such connections on their own. Some classes told me the teaching of English grammar in Spanish helped them. On another occasion, one stricken female student asked to see me after class. She said, in the strongest terms, “You should not be talking Spanish with us. We hear Spanish all the time. From you we need to hear English.” I had to agree with her and, over time—given my simultaneous self-admission that I enjoyed being validated for being able to communicate with Spanish-speakers—I moved closer to being an English-only teacher, without going all the way.

Have I been practicing community language learning? Not consciously. I believe I understood intuitively that relations among students in classes I have taught would be critical to motivating them for months and, hopefully, years. Madeline Ehrman and Zoltán Dörnyei say that a large part of this community consciousness consists of forming relationships among classmates that “make it safe to be temporarily incompetent” (1998, 186). As a student, my feeling of greatest incompetence came during a class in Latin dance (salsa). By far the better scenario for me was dancing with another female student, rather than the instructor, who offered too many home truths about my sense of rhythm. Similarly, I’ve often had the sense that, in the classroom, students would rather dance, or speak, with each other than with me, at least until they internalize that I really pose no threat. Later, Ehrman and Dörnyei write about community language learning as a “shared responsibility methodology” (1998, 186-87), emphasizing the students’ own agency. Certainly, the woman who complained to me, in English, about my teaching method acted as an advocate for her own education.


Charles Curran

Jane Spiro asks: “Would it be practical for you as teacher to act as interpreter/translator for your learners so they can talk in the mother tongue?” (2013, 25). Curran, while being less than explicit about his methodology, describes various experiments and classroom designs in which this might occur. A newcomer to French or German, say, might whisper to a “language counselor,” a native-speaker of the target language, in their L1. The counselor then translates for the group, until, over time, the mélange of languages and relationships helps produce free exchange, lessening and then eliminating altogether any dependence on this counselor. I cannot see this working in practice. In my best second language, Spanish, I’m an unreliable translator. But even positing a fully adroit bilingual, I’m not sure about the ultimate purpose of this chain translation. The idea only seems serviceable—indeed, Curran’s experiments involve those aspiring to speak French, Spanish, Italian, and German, including a mix of native-speakers of each—in a classroom that neatly balances a cluster of languages and that also contains those trained in this empathetic role of language counselor. And when is that ever the case?

I witnessed the most convincing demonstration of the community language learning model at the Chicago-based Universidad Popular, which describes its approach as a Freireian and learning English as a means to empowerment and to building confidence in one’s voice and right to justice. Instructors must be fully English-Spanish bilingual to switch freely and to translate when needed. Themes, such as household economies or family or sports or ward-based Chicago politics, are elicited from the students. In the session that I volunteered as a classroom assistant, we spent a few weeks learning how to execute a Subway order, complete with sauces and toppings. Students memorized the lyrics and how to sing Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” each stanza translated into Spanish as we went along. Each student sang a line or two into the instructor’s smartphone camera. The clips were spliced to make a classroom video.

I surveyed some ESL Center clients at Northern Illinois University and my own English 103 students about use of the mother tongue in the language classroom (link to complete instrument). I thought it interesting, while far from conclusive, in the twelve valid responses that no one said they never used their mother tongue in a language classroom; answers ranged from “sometimes” to “most of the time.” The majority of those participating in the survey were from mainland China. Individuals stated a preference for their mother tongue “when something [sic] is hard to express my feelings” or “when I can’t find a translation for a word in my head.” For some, use of the mother tongue is inappropriate when it might be seen as impolite, among those who don’t share the language. Some don’t like to use English when eating or when angry. The comfort zone for speaking English, on the other hand, exists when talking “with international students studying at my level”; others, however, have never found a comfort zone, despite years of study.

Personally, in my ideal Spanish-learning environment I would never use English, but my words would instantly be recast, by a loving language counselor, so that I could integrate the necessary changes. The counselor would speak to a third person, a non-English-speaker, who might answer in rapid-fire Colombian-accented Spanish, the sort that I heard among soccer fans in Medellín. This reply might be parsed by the counselor or appear subtitled, by some miraculous technological means, so that I could work with the counselor to analyze. And thus my journey to Spanish-language fluency would proceed.


Curran, Charles. 1983. “Counseling-Learning.” Chap. 10 in Methods That Work: A Smorgasbord of Ideas for Language Teachers, ed. John W. Oller Jr. and Patricia A. Richard-Amato. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

Ehrman, Madeline E., and Zoltán Dörnyei. 1998. “Lessons from the World of Psychotherapy.” Chap. 8 in Interpersonal Dynamics in Second Language Acquisition: The Visible and Invisible Classroom. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.

Spiro, Jane. 2013. Changing Methodologies in TESOL. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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