Learning TWO languages at the same time?

Confession: I’ve spent many a year as a cash/time strapped student and in that time I more often than not

made my income from teaching languages. From kindergarten toddlers to senior citizens, groups and individuals, I’ve been around the block, you could say, when it comes to teaching languages for more and less reputable language schools. As a teacher, there’s that tingly feeling of success that comes from walking out of a very well executed lesson leaving the kids in what you imagine to be a well-behaved euphoria of learning.

Now, let’s be honest, there’s also that equally opposite crummy feeling when it just didn’t happen and you feel like pretty much anyone in the world could have just taught that lesson better than you did.

If you ask me, a successful lesson comes down to two things: planning and execution, the latter being entirely down to the teacher, and the former needing a pretty much 50-50 effort by teacher and by the provider of the lessons i(e. The language school) by means of the material they provide the teacher.

Planning a lesson is made a whole lot easier with a well structured, easy to follow syllabus which delivers the language effectively, and does it in a way which is repetitive enough for the kids to pick it up, but not so repetitive as to be boring. It’s got to be a mix of 50% guidance in teaching and 50% freedom in practice, and when your teaching kids you bet your bottom dollar that it’s got to be 100% fun! In 7thgrade I learnt one year of Arabic from this textbook that just had the most fantastic comic strips and audio files that came with it with these hilarious voices. I loved it. It had that something extra, the next year we switched textbooks and I pretty much gave up after that. Man, I wish I still had a copy of that old textbook!

I started teaching at Little Mandarin Classes two years ago, which was right about when they had just started to adopt their Kinaesthetic Teaching Approach)

It sounds fancy, but it’s pretty simple, and that is that learning takes place by the students carrying out physical activities, rather than listening to a lecture or watching demonstrations. The creators of the approach define kinesthetic learners as students who require whole-body movement to process new and difficult information. Remember, these definitions are in a research framework around language learning by adults. I’d say that children, especially the younger ones are by and large almost all students who require whole-body movement to process new and difficult information. That’s the most natural way for kids to learn, by touching and doing at the same time. Which is where the title of this blog comes in. Don’t you think it’s a little ambitious to teach two languages at the same time? Can you think of any languages that can be used to communicate in simultaneously?

Here’s the trick, which is not much of a trick at all, British Sign Language, is the secret to Little Mandarin Classes’ new methodology. Check this link out to see what I mean. The kids learn each new word with the appropriate sign for it in BSL. I’ve seen kids pick up 10-15 new vocab words in a lesson and retain them for a whole week, and it comes down to having a physical, tactile reference point for the new and very foreign sounding word they have just learnt. It still amazes me that all I need to do to prompt the students to repeat the vocab that we learnt the week before is to sign the BSL for the words and the students would repeat the sign and say the words out loud perfectly, like a charm!

Creating that extra sensory reference serves as a kind of “mental bridge” if you like. In pretty broad terms, when it comes to learning something new, ie. our brains picking up a new piece of knowledge, researchers now say that what happens, in super crude terms, is that a “mental bridge”, or a link that is created between the new knowledge, and an existing piece of knowledge in your mind. That bridge can be cemented in pretty firm, or be pretty loose and wobbly, and to cut to the point; the more existing sensory references we have, the firmer the bridge.

In a nutshell, the memory of saying a new word out loud and having a gesture associated with it is an extremely effective way of having kids retain new language, whilst moving their energetic little selves and having a whole lot of fun in the process!



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