I started my professional career as a corporate language trainer in Switzerland. Although I had already achieved a considerable measure of fluency in French and German – two of the three major languages spoken in my beloved, surrogate homeland Confoederatio Helvetica , experiencing the language acquisition process from the perspective of my adult students gave me fascinating new insights into what really gives students a sense of ownership in the target language.
So what is it that really give them that elusive sense of ownership, that first heady taste of foreign language ROI? The moment when they complete their first freeform language transaction? They understand, are understood…and then they get the emotional payoff – to feel like a conqueror of undiscovered lands!
Well, there have been several evolving theories as to what constitutes this sense of target language ownership, heretofore referred to as language acquisition theories – and anyone who’s studied a foreign language knows that memorizing verb conjugations isn’t the way to make friends with your new foreign language!! Although certainly a necessary component of language education, what really makes students fall in love with language is to bring the perspective down to the reality of everyday life – verbs, nouns, idiomatic phrases, and simple automatic responses. What are automatic answers to questions that their mother asks them daily? Or what’s the foreign translated title of their child’s favorite disney film? Over the holidays, I liked introducing my students to US Christmas traditions – the original Grinch cartoon (so memorably narrated by Boris Karloff), Christmas carols in English and working through recipes for traditional holiday foods like cookie cutter, frosted sugar cookies, etc.
Most importantly, I found that humor was a very seductive incentive; give them a comic book or joke that they can practice and then repeat to friends and colleagues offers exposure, not only to idiomatic phrases and timing, but to the critical component of the target language’s humor psychology. (And believe you me – humor psychology is NOT universal!!)
Which brings me to the point of today’s blog entry: getting to simple, everyday applications of the target language/culture’s psychology is a powerful and effective method of creating that sense of ownership – and it doesn’t even have to be verbal! In other words, getting a student to replicate (not just write a book report) some small gesture – and know WHY they’re doing it – gives the student that elusive, sought-after feeling of ,”I’ve got this, I can do this!”
The website that I’ve cited here below does an unusually great job of presenting these psychology bits in a simple and extremely accessible way, as applied to the French language! At the bottom of this French Culture & Communication page, the teachers give a few etiquette points and then move into some fun and accessible hand gestures. (Not THOSE kind of hand gestures, mind you!!) For example, the site teaches students how to count on their fingers as French people do (it’s not quite the same as in the US), how to make the French ‘ok’ sign, what hand signs should accompany the expression for “I promise to…”, and how to non-verbally tell someone, “It’s over!” (Which is especially appealing to high school students who can relate to that phrase to their relationship high-dramas…)
So, if you’re related to anyone studying a foreign language – be it a child, neighbor, spouse – look for websites like the French one cited above that can supplement the book lessons with some of these fun, reality-based applications of the target language….and then encourage them to go beyond reading about it. Get out and use it!! Be your own part of globalization!!