“Keep an open mind… Relish the fact that someone might be just a little bit different than you, can express something in a little bit different, a little bit more sophisticated, nuanced way… See what they have to offer. They might enrich your life and you can certainly enrich theirs.”
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Be open. Before we consider how to do that in the future, let’s look at our past.
Shawn Slakk (bio) shares in rapid succession in this podcast a bit of his personal history that tells of his upbringing in a community with an identity of opening doors around the world assertively through mission, and then his own personal fascination with and studies of languages as opening doors to relationship with friends and family as the foundation for then looking forward into the world.
I my own case, I sought to open doors to being close to my beloved father, who was a pre-World War II refugee immigrant from the former Yugoslavia. I was curious about and opened doors to the different music he listened to, to the amount of garlic he desired in his food (lots!), to the soccer he played and watched, then to the language I could hear in his accent, finally, and to the culture, family and perspectives he had had to leave behind.
What is your story of opening doors in your personal history?
Shawn’s and my open doors have led us to careers in teaching and consulting that seek for those doors that can or even must open in young people’s lives in order to connect them with their own identity and community in language and culture. How about in your life? Where have the open doors led in your life, with regard to the roles of language and culture?
Shawn notes, as you see in the opening quote, “We’re all language learners, whatever language it is that we’re working on.” He meant it, and I mean it, too, as a statement specifically about the language(s) in which we live our lives, whether we are monolingual or multilingual.
But the “language” we are learning our whole lives is also the language of openness and receptivity.
Our future on this globe depends on relishing (a great verb from Shawn!) the reality of diversity of humanity. The diversity is a reality. It is also a great gift. We have teams in sports so that various positions can play roles that work together to win games. We have orchestras with varieties of instruments and instrument families so that the one sound – symphony – they produce together is powerful, multidimensional, and touches the heart and spirit. We have working groups in business so that various perspectives can come together for the success of the company… collaborative groups in classrooms to accomplish deeper learning objectives… families whose identity and success depend on the diversity of each member.
Diversity challenges us, but our lives in this world now depend on being open to that reality. When we are open — when we see that the unfamiliar sound is beautiful nevertheless, that the unfamiliar culture is fascinating and powerful nevertheless, that the unfamiliar perspective can deepen our own – we are on the road not only to survival, but to joy.
Let’s be open.
Enjoy the podcast.
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Norah Jones: It is a great pleasure to welcome my colleague and friend, Shawn Slakk to the podcast today. Hi, Shawn.
Shawn Slakk: Hi, how’s it going, Norah? Thanks for having me.
Norah Jones: Oh, you’re most welcome. Thank you. I appreciate it, because I’ve already enjoyed the conversation that we had just getting ready to record today. With your background about emergent bilinguals and talking to presenting academic language, and literacy and content integration, what I want to do, am hungry to do with you during this conversation is… Content is the world. So to integrate what’s happening in the world and what the applications of language and content, and what it means for the culture, we’ve just got a nice array of things we can do. And, as a matter of fact, you were just expressing how to relate what you were teaching with the point of view of language mathematics when you were doing a workshop. Please share that, because you do a lot of workshops all around the country and the world. How did this particular one turn out and why?
Shawn Slakk: Well, this is a great one and I love it when teachers come and have a different viewpoint a little bit than I do, teach a different discipline than I taught. And math frequently comes up. And the strategies and examples that I show for pre-teaching vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing to show mastery. The Math teachers go, “Well. Hmm. Some people think we don’t do a lot of writing in math, but you do do it.” But it’s also in a little bit of a different language than English. I mean, it is English, but math is a language unto itself. It has its own requirements. Numbers and symbols are meanings that go with other written words that are spelled out, and students need to be able to express themselves when they read, and when they write in math.
And it’s in English, and is in the content of math at the same time. So they’re doing an awful lot. And that translates even to the real world out as adults, because you have to do things like pay the rent, balance your checkbook, make sure you got the right amount of money in your paycheck, pay your bills etc. So it’s not just math and numbers. It’s a lot of content itself and literacy that has to go with that.
Norah Jones: When You speak about literacy, and indeed your biography, which is on my website fluency.consulting, we talk about your sessions being centered on academic language literacy, as well as content integration. Describe what literacy is from the point of view of what you do and the problems that you solve or address.
Shawn Slakk: Okay. Well, we talk about the literacy piece. Can you function in this communication area that you have to be talking about? In school, of course that’s academic, that’s discipline literacy, that’s the language of the content. If we think about whatever it is you’re teaching, whether it’s kindergarten or university level ESL, or even adult literacy, the teacher is teaching the content, but also the vocabulary, the literacy pieces, the format, the structure, the oral or written grammar of that content at the same time. And so, that’s kind of tough sometimes to do both at the same time, but it’s very doable, if you use the content as the delivery method for the vocabulary.
You connect the content to the vocabulary that you want them to use. You connect the reading pieces to the vocabulary of the content. And then, if you do some type of writing, that of course is the reaction to the reading, to the discussion, all based in the content. That literacy piece has to do with how can you communicate and interact, with not just the subject matter, regardless of what it is and the people around you, and what you’re asking them to do and what you need to do.
Norah Jones: That’s fascinating. And when we talk about, you referred to the ESL, that is the English as a Second Language classroom, are those that are in these courses, and we are talking about, I assume, all age groups, are these classes all English language learners, or are they sometimes embedded within classes with native English speakers by background?
Shawn Slakk: Many times you’ll find that, unless it’s a co-taught class where it’s all English learners and content at the same time, there’s two different variations. There’s the English as a second language instructor who takes and provides services about the English language to themselves for a specific set of time, half an hour, 45 minutes, if they’re lucky, every day. More or less, depending on how much they need and what level they are in learning English. The rest of the time, they have to be with the regular content teacher, math, science, social studies, chemistry, PE, art. That’s where you have the combination of the English language learners in with the native English speakers. And that can even be combined if it’s a dual language program where half the students are Spanish or Mandarin speakers and they’re learning English or vice versa. Half of them are English speakers and they’re learning Spanish or Mandarin. So it’s a very interesting combo and there’s no one specific piece.
Norah Jones: And this is quite national, well, challenge, I will put it that way. But just a national setting. There are many, many folks that are coming in from, with many languages, including those spoken at home, as well as English speakers. Where do you see, Shawn, the progression going with ensuring that young people both know English, but also understand that they have a heritage language to keep. What do you do when you come across situations where these are happening?
Shawn Slakk: We have a lot of folks coming in from outside of the United States that are speakers of other languages besides English, but we have a huge population of nationalized citizens. They were born here and they speak nothing but the mother tongue of their parents and their grandparents, that isn’t English, before they get to school. And then they have to work on learning English too. So there’s a combo of both.
I’m frequently asked… Parents say, “Well, how do we help our learners? How do we help our children in that with the language?” And there was a time when we said, “Okay, speak only English, forget the heritage language.” And to me, we’ve realized that that’s a disservice. Now I say, “Please do your best to teach them as much of their heritage language as they can. Talk with them, teach them as much as they can, read to them, help them learn, to write.” Some of our heritage language schools have Saturday schools where they do Hebrew or Russian or whatever on Saturday.
So that’s an awesome piece there. One of the coolest things I ever heard, it was totally mind blowing for me, what came from a gentleman that was in charge of the defense department, foreign language department. And he said… I hope I get this right here. He said that, the biggest job vacancies they had in this federal department of defense was certified bilingual, multilingual employees, because that’s how we protect ourself from those that aren’t going to be as nice as we’d like everybody in the world to be. So that one little piece there was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s so cool.”
And part of what they liked about it was that when you speak more than one language, you think and approach problems and you problem solve differently, because of the way the language is created. So it depends on which language you’re thinking in, perhaps you solve in a different way. Or if you want to go back and forth. So I just think the brain stuff of more than one language just is fascinating.
Norah Jones: It is, isn’t it? I hesitate to say mind blowing because it actually is mind enhancing, but so many people that are not in the language field believe that somehow people’s brains get confused. We know that data shows that in fact brains can easily compartmentalize and cross-use languages. It’s a basic human skillset, especially for those that are in their younger years, as the brain acquisition segment is very active. How do you in your work, Shawn, help people to feel reassured about this, help to overcome some of the concerns that people have that somehow, perhaps students learning the new language will get confused?
Shawn Slakk: You’re right. That is a common thinking. And people just have to ponder and think about it after we discuss it a little bit. One of the best ways, I think, to help them understand is that, there’s a process called translanguaging. That’s where you switch back and forth between two or three different languages, whatever it is, that your cultural group works with there. And so in the classroom, the way that would work would be if the primary language you’re working on of instruction is, let’s just say English and many of your speakers are Spanish language speakers. You instruct them in English, they can discuss what they want to discuss, learn it in English and/or Spanish, whichever they need to get the content correct. And then you require them to do the output or the production back in English, because that’s the target language.
But the key piece that you’re talking about there is translanguaging. They’re using all of their facilities to go back and forth between, because sometimes one language has a clearer way of saying something than another language, in my opinion. And of course, all of this is my opinion. There’s a little bit of science stuff that goes with it, or lots of science that goes with it, which can… If somebody’s interested, they can ask me and email me. But I think perhaps there is a thinking that the time to process between languages, or when someone’s learning a new language or transferring one bit of information from one language to another, that that appears to be confusion.
Or the other piece is that one language is a little bit more nuanced or sophisticated in some of its levels of language and vocabulary and discussion. So, for example, if you go to that wonderful piece of assistive technology, Google Translate, and you put in a sentence, it may or may not give you back exactly the contextual, nuanced meaning you’re looking for. Because a word may have 40 different definitions and it has to be on context. So that’s how you get folks to think about that. It’s not necessarily confusion. It’s refinement, nuance, sophistication.
Norah Jones: The refinement and the toolbox, the idea of language as a tool is something that I pretty much say every podcast when I get a chance, because it’s not a topic, it is a tool. And you are providing those kinds of workshops and trainings that allow people to make full use of this tool. Let me ask you from the point of view of how you approach in your work, when students are at home in the heritage description that you provided, and their parents or guardians are encouraged to richly engage them in this heritage language to grow it, how did this… Those that you train, I’m speaking here about the folks that are receiving language, or the educators that are working with them at whatever level, what kind of effect does that begin to have on the student’s own view of themselves, their competence, who they are in the world, their identity, with regard to language and culture?
Shawn Slakk: I don’t see that it does anything but bolster them and say, “Hey, I’m special. This is who I am. This is my culture. This is my background. This is where I come from,” that positive mindset, that asset-based mindset that we’re looking for. “My culture has value.” I love it when they start feeling comfortable enough to say, “Well, at home, or in the country I came from, my country, we do this this way,” or something as simple as the story of Cinderella or Little Red Riding Hood, or some of those pieces, they have a little bit different tweak to them.
Or you do a different culture. What does Thanksgiving mean? Or maybe they don’t have Thanksgiving, they have a different day of gratitude or Christmas, or any of these holidays and festivals. Maybe they make tea differently in a certain way, because it means something more to them than just a cup of caffeine. Anytime that you can pull in their culture, the enrichment and depth of their language and their culture and their personality, I think that just helps them to explode into the world that, “Hey, I’m a useful, helpful person. I have extreme value. I’m ready to conquer the world.” I mean, we see that all the time on the news with children from different cultures and that have big ideas on how to solve different things. And some of them pan out.
Norah Jones: They do. Now, are these the kinds of things, this excitement over what multilingual young people can do, are these the kinds of things that you say in your workshops when you’re training instructors in language and literacy?
Shawn Slakk: Oh, absolutely. If that’s part of the set goals, to help them with the cultural bridging and the social emotional learning pieces that go with learning a language and blending cultures, or interleaving a culture and that we don’t want them too much blended because then it becomes mixed. We want to be able to show them that their culture, by itself, the things they do, are perfect. Sometimes you can blend things together and have something different. But absolutely, if teachers are looking for that and that’s what the goals are, [crosstalk 00:15:50]. Some of it becomes a teachable moment.
For example, like I said, the gentleman just recently who was doing the math, had a book of algebra in Arabic. And so he was showing us that, “Here it is, here’s math. It’s in Arabic.” You can sort of get and understand what’s going on because all of these things are close enough. So maybe the students comprehend the content in their primary language. They just need English to express it, if that language is the goal, is English. So yeah.
Norah Jones: So what’s happening when young people do not get academic language? What are your interventions? What are you doing via your workshops to prevent what could be bad outcome, if students do not get academic language and literacy?
Shawn Slakk: Well, I don’t have to deal with that too much. I don’t do it, but I know that at times the Department of Justice comes in and says, quite literally, “You’re not doing justice for your English language learners.” So we help them have some strategies and remedies for doing that. I worked with the Department of Massachusetts to do that, and I’ve done a lot of consulting with different school districts and states that have had some minor issues with that. Individually, teachers say, “Oh, okay. That’s academic language,” “Oh, okay. All right. I can do this.” I love to show them that the strategies I like to present, and make things more accessible, work for every learner at whatever level they’re at. Monolingual learners, special education learners, duly identified multilingual, anybody.
They can all be taken and differentiated into pieces that work for students to meet them where they’re at, at their levels. So when that comes and the teachers, all of a sudden, get this look on their face, because they’re a special education teacher and they’re going, “Oh, wow, this would work for my special ed kids too.” Or, “Oh, this would really work for my students that are just having a little bit of trouble getting over the bar there for reading or writing. And the only language they speak is English.” Because let’s face it, we’re all language learners, whatever language it is that we’re working on.
Norah Jones: That’s for sure. We are consistently and continually learning. And that’s beautifully said, and that’s the nature of language, isn’t it, Shawn? That language is the human enterprise. So if you’re going to be learning how to learn a language, well, it’s going to have an effect on everyone that’s sitting in that room.
Shawn Slakk: Absolutely. And something that popped into my head, you were asking about academic language… Just about any language, you have to have to be successful in the classroom. To me, that’s academic language. But are there different levels of academic language? Absolutely. You’re not going to… In the classroom, for writing a 10-page research paper or 5-page essay, you’re not going to use texting and emoji to write. You’re going to be a little more formal. But on the streets, you’re not going to be super formal or in the class, in the hallway or the bus stop or the lunch room, you’re not going to be super formal. So those registers and that, that’s what we also like to show the teachers too. They’re aware of it. Sometimes they just need to have somebody remind them of it, because some of us… It’s been a while since we’ve been in those methods classes.
Norah Jones: Indeed, indeed. And one of the things that I used to do a lot in my classroom, and I know that the educators that I’ve talked to all over the country, that have done similarly, and sounds like exactly what you just said, is every one of our young people, every one of us are multilingual even if we do not speak, say, more than English. Because, we speak differently to each group with which we find ourselves.
Shawn Slakk: Yes.
Norah Jones: And that’s very reassuring. In my classroom it was very reassuring to my students to hear that they had already mastered bilingualism and multilingualism. And they were about to add another language in to their mix, not suddenly depart from their basic skillset.
Shawn Slakk: And then they have the language of math, which is a certain way of talking and reporting and the language of social studies and science at a certain way of talking or reporting. So we’re all multilingual, even if it’s just in some ways, and literate, even if it’s just expressing yourself in only one primary language of English or Spanish or whatever. So, good point. Yes, absolutely.
Norah Jones: So when you were meeting with that man, that language of math, and you just mentioned the language of science, the language of social studies, such a good thing to remember always and through this podcast today for us here that are listening. Wonderful to remind ourselves of that, there’s a language for each academic area.
Shawn Slakk: Yeah. And that even translates into the workplace, in that I’m starting to do a little more work again. I started off my teaching with adult learners and I’m doing a little more work with adult learners. But in workplace literacy, that HVAC, the air conditioner gentlemen, the heating technician lady that comes out, he or she has a content and there is the language of HVAC that they have to learn. And there’s also that register of how do you deal with a client? In what way do you speak to the client? What way do you speak to your colleagues? To your boss? You don’t knock on the door and say, “Yo dude,” to the nice lady that answers the door. And our waitresses or our certified nurse’s aides.
So that content piece, the register piece, the literacy, the discipline literacy, content literacy is not at the classroom or at the university level. It really has to do with anything. I kind of helped highlight that, because one of the things I talk about to them, because I personally like to make candies and goodies, and so for Christmas, those are on the really good list, get homemade chocolate truffles and biscotti and things. So we talk…
Norah Jones: I’m raising my hand over here.
Shawn Slakk: Yeah, I see that your hand is up. It’s like, “Oh, I hope I’m on the list.”
Higher level, and that would be content specific vocabulary, which is what would be considered tier three, it’s very rare and it’s typically only used in that particular content of chocolate. And that would be coverture and enrobing. Theobroma is the scientific part of the chocolate part, tempering. So that’s the higher-level vocabulary you might need to be successful in chocolate making, but the lower level piece is you roll it out, you coat it. Well, what does coat mean? Is coat… Okay, you’re coating it in chocolate, but it’s not this big fluffy downfield parka thing that you… To think about the context. So that’s how I like to help people realize that yes, of course there’s content and context of everything.
Norah Jones: That’s great. And as a person that grew up in Washington, DC, area, then married and moved to a farm in southwestern Virginia, the language that I had to learn… Because when my husband said, “Well, the heifers are going to freshen,” he could have been talking any number of languages besides English. And it really is a matter of learning the vocabulary, not only of that in the dairy business in this case, but also that of a particular geographical location. And that’s what living language is all about. Isn’t it, Shawn?
Shawn Slakk: Absolutely. So if the heifers are going to freshen, what does that mean? I know heifers will be cows, female cows. But what does fresh mean? Because that’s new to me too.
Norah Jones: They’re going to have a calf…. they are going to deliver their calf.
Shawn Slakk: Are they freshening their makeup? Putting on a little more mascara? You know what I mean? Because that’s what we sometimes… Ladies will say, “Oh, I got to go to the rest room to freshen up.”
Norah Jones: Exactly. In this case, their milk is going to come right out, but… So, Shawn, let me ask you a question. What is your personal history that has brought you to this career, to this gift?
Shawn Slakk: Well, I frequently introduced myself and tease people and tell them that, I mean, it’s the truth, but I mean, that’s how I start off. And I tell them that I gave my first sermon to a group of 2000 people at approximately the age of eight. Because I was a fourth-generation lay minister in a religion and that part of what we did in that religion was to do a ministry in other countries. So that was always something that was in the set of my brain and that I liked teaching. I was always chosen to do Bible study. Or, later in life, when I worked in restaurants and places like that, I was the trainer. Then I decided to become a teacher. But the language piece was always… I had this internal desire to be multilingual myself. I studied Persian because we had some friends that were Persian.
So we studied Farsi, Russian, Japanese, Spanish, of course, all these different languages. But it was more of a casual acquaintance to be able to say, “Hi, how’s it going?” in several different languages, not this formal piece. So when I finally got to a point… And even our family did things like Greek and Latin studies and tried working on Spanish, because there was the possibility of going on a mission in a Spanish-speaking country. Or we had folks that came to the United States that spoke only Spanish. So when I finally got to the point where I was going to go to college, I said, “Okay, I want to be a Japanese language teacher and a reading teacher,” because those are the two things I thought were the super most important things. Well, it turned out that at that particular time in life, I listened to the counselor and the counselor said, “Oh, you’ll never get a job in Japanese. Why don’t you switch to Spanish?”
So I thought, “Okay, that’s fine,” that was my second choice. So I switched to Spanish and kept doing the Japanese and I did the algebra in the same semester. So I did algebra, Japanese and Spanish all in one semester and about died. And then I did just Spanish. I lived in Spain for a while to learn Spanish and I visited other countries to practice my Japanese and Spanish. So that’s kind of where it came from. The crazy piece of it is after I graduated and I was doing substitute teaching, someone knew I had some Japanese ability, and they needed someone to monitor a student teacher who was doing their student teaching in Japanese. So I was the substitute master teacher in Japanese as my very first job out of college.
To me that was just like, “Wow, this is really crazy,” because that counselor had no idea that yes, there were jobs available for Japanese teachers albeit very, very rare and very few and that was interesting. And then, the even more fun thing with Japanese was a friend knew that I could teach conversational Japanese and they had an international school. So I taught Japanese, breakout sessions, special session to kindergarten, first graders. And we had lots of fun that year. We did everything in Japanese. I can’t do that now because it’s 25 years since I’ve had anybody to practice with. But that’s kind of-
Norah Jones: It’s a shame, but that’s a really interesting background. And I do love that there have been several guests — and I too — stumbled into teaching a particular language that we either expected to never do or someone else expected us to never do. So that’s really cool. And you are the founder and CLO of ABCDS&S Consulting. Why did you get into the consulting business? What does your consulting company do?
Shawn Slakk: Well, I started out teaching. And I mean, after teaching in the church at eight years old, that was what I got a college degree for obviously. And then I thought, “Okay, well, I’d like to reach even more.” So I got the school leadership, Masters of School Administration. And I did that as a school administrator for a while. Then I worked in the central office as a coach for a program called SIOP [Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol] which is a type of teaching protocol. And then I moved on to the state of Massachusetts to help them with some of their issues they were having with English language learners. So I just kept moving up and moving up and I thought, “Well, I want to try to do the best thing I can to help the most people.” And that involves helping teachers help students. I was invited to do a lot of different coaching with different companies and publishing some books and things with different publishers.
And so they do professional development, which we’re now transitioning to call professional learning, because on point, a little bit more nuanced and that, I like that, particular piece there. My desire to reach as many people as possible so they can become self-sufficient in helping as many people as they can. So the consulting piece there is how I came to that. I enjoy it. It’s nice to be your own boss. It’s a little scary now and then, especially since the world stopped about 18 months ago. But we all coped, moved along, right?
Norah Jones: We’re making every effort. And when you’re consulting something as ongoing as the need for language and literacy competence, there’s always a need. There’s always an need. Well, Shawn, it’s been great for you to share some wonderful insights here. And I know that our listeners are just like, “Wow, yes, that I can pick up and run with myself,” or, “I feel reaffirmed.” Right now, as you turn to the listeners and you say, “Okay, before we leave, there’s one more thing that I have to make sure that everybody hears, is aware of, warned about, exhorted…” What do you have to share with our listeners here before we finish today?
Shawn Slakk: Keep an open mind. I think, in many ways, relish the fact that someone might be just a little bit different than you, can express something in a little bit different, a little bit more sophisticated, nuanced way. Get to know someone who speaks another language. Have them practice a little bit of English with you if they’re learning English. Ask them how to say certain things in their language, because familiarity with someone helps you to become more comfortable with them. And you may not agree on everything and that’s life. That’s what makes everything okay, is you don’t have to agree with everything.
But keep an open mind, see what they have to offer. They might enrich your life and you can certainly enrich theirs. To me, we’re a big, giant globe, as we can see now with different weather pieces and stuff that are going on, and the international reality and the lack of borders with the internet and technology and climate and all those things and that, we’re really a big blue ball in the sky now, instead of little individual nations, little individual countries. So, we need to have that mindset more of inhabitants of the earth, rather than certain countries, certain language speakers.
Norah Jones: That’s powerful, Shawn. And I love that along with that sense of indeed this blue world floating that we’re all together, you use the word relish, relish each other. And at least be ready to listen to each other. Thank you so much for all of this.
Shawn Slakk: Thank you again for having me. Good conversation. Good questions. Makes you think a little bit. That’s good.
Norah Jones: Well, that, I hope has been fun for you. It certainly has been fun for me. And I know that it’s been very, very useful to the listeners. So thank you again, Shawn. Good luck with your consulting and with that wonderful attitude that you bring and may that help to bring about this unity and relishing that you’ve spoken about.
Shawn Slakk: Thank you. And thank you for what you do to get the message out and help people be exposed to and find other ways to look at things. So that’s great.