Foreign Language Teaching Tips, Part 2

25 Oct

Feeling intimidated about teaching your kids a foreign language at home?  In this 3-part series, I offer you ideas on how to make language learning fun and effective, even if you’re not fluent yourself.

4.  Focus on getting ideas across.  Don’t be a stickler for correction.

People are SO self-conscious when they’re learning a language.  They are stepping way out of their comfort zone.  They’re afraid they sound stupid or said something profane instead of what they meant to say.  Generally, correcting them when they are feeling this way shuts them down more than helps them.  (I’m not talking about advanced students when I say this.)  Your role as the teacher-mom is to highlight what they were able to get across to you.  Praise them for all their efforts.  You ask how many and they say cinco, when there were really dos?  Your job is to pick up on how great it is that they remembered the word dos!  Are they floundering for the words?  Don’t leave them hanging, especially in front of other people.  Throw them a lifeline and just let them repeat, even if they can’t produce the answer on their own yet.  Some people just need to hear new words more times before they can regurgitate them.

5.  Use the target language to complete tasks together, rather than focusing on book learning.

This is one reason why I think schools may fail at teaching languages.  They are geared to need to have quantitative and objective measures of progress.  They also don’t want to allow a class to become a blow-off.  Quizzes, copying sentences, tests, multiple choice, etc. are all very conducive to quantifying and making things objective, but they are probably the worst way to make someone remember new and strange words.

Think about how you learned your first language.  Did you look at it in writing and memorize lists of words?  No!  You learned to speak–and quite well–anywhere from 3 to 5 years before you learned to read.  Did your parents really come down on you as a 2-year-old when you said “pasketi” instead of “spaghetti”.  Hopefully not!  They probably thought it was really adorable and cooed over you and repeated what they recognized out of what you said.  This should be a clue for how to teach second languages.

In my opinion, exposing people to the written form of a foreign language (especially in the Latin alphabet) just causes them to superimpose their existing phonetic system onto those new words–in other words to say them wrong.  I think it’s better to let people hear native speakers and to mimic them and babble the new words to themselves for a long time before you show them how things are spelled.  They have a better chance of sounding native this way.  You might be surprised to know that the “d”, “p” or “t” of Spanish are not pronounced exactly the same as they are in English, though they’re very similar.  The letter “j” in jalapeño sounds nothing like in English, but if you see it on paper before you hear it a lot of times, you will think “English j” when you see that word.

The other reason for avoiding bookwork and instead doing activities goes back to the social aspect of language again.  One cooking session where all the new foods are taught and you ask your student over and over again to “pass the queso, pass the sal, pass the tomate” will drill those words in better than 5 hours of seat work.  Do crafts together and use the words for paper, scissors, glue, crayons.  Play a sport together and use the words for points, ball, run, throw, catch.  Go shopping together and use the words for shirt, pants, shoes.

6.  Argument is not just for the sake of argument.

Another option, when you can’t physically complete a task together, is to divide into teams (even one-on-one is okay) and debate a really serious question:  an ethical dilemma or a triage question.  A triage question is one where there are limited resources that have to be allocated to too many people.  For example, there is one heart available for a transplant.  Who should get it: the 18-year-old juvenile delinquent or the 83-year-old World War II veteran who’s done community service all his life?  Discuss.  People get really impassioned about their P.O.V., and hopefully, they will be able to use the TL to get some of that across.

7. Study pronunciation, but do it separately from speaking time–and don’t dwell on it!

When babies learn their first language, the first step they go through is babbling.  They start out producing a wide range of sounds, but they quickly pick up on which ones the people in their lives use, through hearing them frequently and through their parents reinforcing those sounds by praising them and repeating after them when they make a sound that the parent recognizes.  Then, the baby tosses out all the other sounds and soon limits her repertoire to just what those around her use.

In babbling, babies are free and uninhibited to experiment with the way their tongue, lips, palate, throat, and nose can be used to make sounds.  It’s a sort of “constructive play” for speech.  Older students aren’t usually encouraged to babble and are usually pretty self-conscious about doing so. Ideally, though, even older students would spend some time practicing the formation of sounds in the TL.  Just like practicing a piece of music on the piano, it takes rehearsal to be able to make our body parts land in new and unfamiliar position.

The first factor in doing that successfully is being shown how to produce the sounds right.  Sometimes it’s hard to do this because we are so unaccustomed to them.  For example, two letters in Arabic use what’s called a glottal stop, which means you close up your throat low down in it to stop the air, something that we’re not used to in English.  (At least, we’re not used to calling it a letter of it’s own.)  It required a lot of practice and asking native speakers to physically show me how they make that sound in order for me to get it even close to right.  Other times, the student doesn’t even notice that there’s a difference in positioning of the mouth, tongue or other parts in the TL from their native language because the sounds are deceptively similar.  The teacher needs to point this out.

The second factor is having the opportunity to practice the new sounds in a non-threatening setting.  This is something that gets overlooked or improperly emphasized in a language class, many times.

  • Students should be encouraged to practice new sounds when they have time alone, so they can feel uninhibited about sounding weird or doing it wrong or accidentally getting spittle everywhere.  After the sound has been modeled for them in a detailed, correct, slow-motion way, you can give them a few words as examples to practice with.  If I were trying to teach the difference between “r” and “rr” in Spanish, I might give the contrast between “perro” (dog) and “cara” (face) and tell the student to say the two words to themselves as correctly as possible many times before I see them next.
  • During the time when students are trying to speak (i.e., answer questions, describe how they feel, what they want, etc.), pronunciation should mostly be left alone.  Why? Because correcting them at that time will frequently cause self-consciousness and unnecessary interruption of their thought process.  On the other hand, their pronunciation will gradually become better during speaking time if they have been practicing it separately.
  • When you’re focusing on pronunciation while you’re with your kids during language time, create a playful, fun environment where it feels okay to not get it spot on every time.
  • Exaggerate the sounds a bit and liken them to something the student may already know or have heard of before.  To use Arabic as an example again, there are three different H’s.  This was bewildering to me until someone said, “Think of one of them as the soft, breathy H.  Think of the other one as the sound you make after you take a long sip of refreshing soda.  Close your throat around it a little.”  I knew exactly how to sound like I’d been sipping soda, and that helped me get it right!



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