We all know the scenario – it’s nearly Christmas time. The children are distracted and over-excited, the teachers are tired and rather stressed with all the mock exams. What happens? Someone cracks out the same old Christmas worksheet which is used every year and all classes learn the keywords to describe a British Christmas – because it’s easy, because it’s what they are interested in right now, and because…… well, because that’s the way it’s always been done.
It doesn’t matter which festival you look at, when it comes to GCSE Modern Foreign Languages they are all in the syllabus as the students are encouraged to learn about the “standard” ones for their target language and then also to express themselves in talking about their own festivals. All too often though, this can be left until the end of the course or done as a vague afterthought which the students don’t even realise is important for the course (see the worksheet scenario above) and a learning opportunity is missed, or diluted. Here are five ideas to liven up the festival module.
1. Use realia. Yes, it can be a bit of a hassle, and you will always need to be careful of allergies, but talking about German Christmas biscuits (Plätzchen) or a French “Galette des Rois” is always more interesting if you can see one, or EAT one. Watch out for nuts though, as both commonly contain almonds. You could also use other festive items in a “feely bag” (a cloth bag which can’t be seen through) to set the scene and teach the vocabulary.
2.If you can’t use realia then you could always use some good pictures of the items, or look for a video (there are instruction videos for baking all kinds of treats on a popular video-sharing website!). This could then lead to a great practice of the imperative as the students can reproduce the instructions for making the recipe – or give instructions for how to make one of their own traditional treats.
3.Exploit the topic blatantly to practise grammar, while hiding the fact that you are doing so! “I went to the shops and I bought…” is a popular memory game where each person adds an item which was bought, and then has to remember all the items which went before. Make it more complicated by encouraging the use of adjectives. Discuss gender differences for the use of those adjectives and help the children to get some oral practice at the same time. You could extend the game further by listing different activities which will be done (or which must/could/should be done – squeeze in some modal verbs!) in order to prepare for the festive season.
4.Try to highlight the similarities and differences between the country in which you are teaching and the way that the festival is celebrated in the target language area. This kind of cultural input is what brings language-learning to life and makes it all more interesting. You could produce a “letter from a penfriend” to talk about their country and encourage students to write back to them for an independent writing task.
5.Use traditional tales, legends etc. You could use card sorting to order the traditional nativity story, to explain about St Nikolaus visiting German children on December 5, to tell the story of how the church bells bring the chocolate eggs to French children at Easter etc. Students could be encouraged to tell the story of one of their own festivals in a similar way.
Time pressure is always a challenge, especially in the GCSE course, but the ideas above could also be adapted to be used in an extra-curricular language club, or as a one-off lunchtime activity for those who have more than 20 minutes to eat.
In the meantime – Joyeux Noël, Frohe Weihnachten – and Merry Christmas!
How do you measure success when learning a language? For some people success is measured in exams, certificates and qualifications, for others it is more a question of gaining confidence to be able to do things which you couldn’t do before – like ordering a coffee or reserving a hotel room. This is the story of one of our past students, Andy.
Andy started beginner German classes with Language Learners in early 2015. He was planning to take ski instructor training in Switzerland and wanted to get a head start on the language. Here is what Andy himself had to say about his first set of lessons with us:
“I had never spoken German before and needed to learn a lot in a small amount of time. In the space of just a few months Teri had me confidently speaking the language to the point I arrived out here and became the person who had to do all the translating and question asking! Teri’s lessons were great fun and really well structured. From tenses and grammar to specific lessons on Ski vocabulary, she really took into account my requirements and level. When I come back next year I will definitely be continuing the lessons and improving my language skills further. Thanks a lot Teri!”
Did Andy return for more lessons? Yes, indeed he did. He came back at the end of the ski season and continued learning in preparation for a return to Switzerland in the next ski season. We continued with focussed classes on grammar and ski vocabulary including naming eight different types of ski lift, and practising how to call for medical assistance. In fact, he was so inspired that he also took the Goethe Institut A1 level German exam in London shortly before the 2016 ski season, which he passed with a good mark.
There was mixed news about Andy’s season. The good news was that he felt confident in his language and really enjoyed his time there. The bad news was that a ski accident saw him “enjoying” the Swiss medical facilities rather more than he may have wanted. However, every cloud has a silver lining and we were delighted to get a message from Andy to say that the medical vocabulary we had covered had been really helpful and that he had managed to complete all his own medical forms, in German, despite the pain!
Andy recovered from his accident and completed the ski season. He has now returned to the UK and has moved away from the area to start a new job.
The first step to learning a new skill is deciding that you want to do so. Simple. What isn’t always so easy is deciding HOW you are going to learn that skill.
Let’s take languages as an example (funny, that!) – should you go along to your local Adult Education Classes and sign up for weekly classes, or can you just download an app and get started? What about those self-study language programmes which promise to get you speaking a new language in 12 weeks? Here are a few of the options available to you, with some thoughts for you to consider when deciding which method or methods you would like to use:
1. Adult Education Classes.
Many local councils have adult education classes during the evening or daytime, usually based at your local college or community centre. These can be a good option for the budget conscious and for those who like the dynamic of learning in a group. As you pay for the whole term in advance you may find that this is quite motivating when it comes to the evening when you are tired and tempted to bunk off! However, they can be prone to cancellation if there aren’t enough students. The group dynamic doesn’t suit everyone as some people will inevitably feel that the group is going more slowly than they would like and others may feel that it is all a bit of a rush. There can also be some difficulties with content as the group classes tend to follow a set text book and the content may not always be relevant to you – e.g. you may not want to spend three weeks talking about applying for jobs if you have just retired!
2. Private Tuition
A good private tutor will tailor the classes to suit your level and also your needs/interests. You may be able to pay-as-you-go and also to take the odd week off for holidays or when work is too busy. The available times tend to be more flexible than in a group situation and you can, of course, set the pace of progress yourself by spending more time on the areas which you find difficult and speeding through the “easy” bits. Naturally there are two sides to every coin – private tuition can prove expensive and it is always a sensible idea to get some recommendations for private tutors in order to make sure you get a good one! Do bear in mind that you can always engage a private tutor for a short burst of tuition, to get you over a particular block or explain a tricky grammar point or two, rather than on a long-term basis.
If you are looking for a tutor for your child then do take the time to make sure that the tutor has a valid DBS certificate (police check) and ask about their previous experience in tutoring children of the relevant age.
Everyone uses apps for everything these days, don’t they? Well, yes… and no. There are so many language-learning apps available these days that it can be hard to keep track of them. One of the most popular is Duo Lingo which is very good for extending your vocabulary and encouraging you to practise. Many of the apps use gamification to persuade you to spend more time on your learning in order to gain points, credits, badges etc. They are a good way of revising vocabulary but tend to be weaker on the grammar side.
4. Self-study programmes with book/CD/DVD
Michel Thomas, Rosetta Stone and even the BBC have all produced self-teaching courses for language learning. The main advantage of these is that you can listen/work at a time which suits you. Costs can vary widely from around £17 for the BBC Talk series to £180 or so for Rosetta Stone (October 2017) The better ones use a range of native speakers to provide exposure to different accents and a variety of reading/listening exercises to extend your skills. On the flip side, some of them are weak on grammar teaching and there is nobody there to ask if you don’t understand the explanation in the book/on the screen.
With these programmes the key point is time management. In order to make progress (any progress, not just fluency in 12 weeks!) you need to make time to sit down and study. Of course, you can “just” listen to the audio tracks in the car, but if you are driving then I hope you aren’t paying enough attention to the tracks to learn well! Much better to sit down and focus, regularly.
5. Conversation with a native speaker
Practising with a native speaker is a really useful way to improve your language skills. However, if your pet native speaker is a friend or family member then it may lead to more problems than it solves! In the same way that many parents prefer not to teach their own children to drive, the frustration of trying to communicate with someone you know well, but in a different language, can cause frictions. Knowing how to correct the learner and when to do so is a skill that non-teachers may not find easy. Also it can be sometimes difficult to explain WHY something is incorrect if you have only ever spoken the language as a native rather than learning all the grammar rules.
6. Move to the relevant country
It is often said that there is no substitute for living in a country to get you moving with the language. This is true, but not everyone can just drop everything and move lock, stock and barrel to another country. What about work? Family? A home?
A short-term immersion course may be a good option though. There are many companies which offer language tuition as part of a holiday and in some cases you can even add on a skill such as skiing or cooking to get the most out of your time.
As is often the case in real life, sometimes there is no single, perfect, solution. In many cases a blend of the above methods can be really quite effective. I am always happy to find that my students are using a vocabulary app or two to keep up their skills and those who plan a holiday where they get daily language practice usually return with new enthusiasm and some fantastic phrases!
How do you measure success when learning a language? For some people success is measured in exams, certificates and qualifications, for others it is more a question of gaining confidence to be able to do things which you couldn’t do before, like ordering a coffee – or discussing your refurbishment project with the builder! Today’s success story is about Liz. Here is what she says:
“Owning a home in the Swiss Alps, I recently needed to significantly progress my working knowledge of French to cope with the redevelopment of our property there and so liaise with builders and suppliers. I enjoyed fun and diverse learning sessions where all key language skills were addressed; vocabulary and scenarios relevant to houses and building really helped me specifically.”
It wasn’t all about the building project. We also took care to help with grammar so that Liz could understand whether people were talking about things they had already done or what was to be done in the future. Liz continues: “For the first time too, grammar was understandable. Teri’s grammar sheets clearly showed how to construct particular tenses and the structure of sentences in terms of word order – something I had always struggled with at school.”
Liz continued with classes after the completion of the refurbishment project and periodically returns for additional conversation practice. She concludes “Language Learners lessons have definitely progressed my ability in French and I feel confident to liaise in a multitude of scenarios. I still have a lot to learn, but I know I can speak, read and write at a much higher level than ever before and my understanding, gained from a range of interactive listening exercises, has also progressed.”