Making Moves: learning a language through active games

Energy of the young kids

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has spent a busy afternoon with a group of kids and felt exhausted afterwards!  It is exhilarating to be part of their non-stop energy, but while they seem to have an infinite supply of it, we adults tend to run out a bit sooner.  Sometimes the anticipation of tiring out can lead us to squelch the energy of the young kids. We might prefer a quieter learning environment with more structure to the active games that kids love and enjoy.  Finding a balance can be tricky, but here are a few trips to help focus young energy into productive learning games that engage kids.

Shopping in person, not on paper

Since language is meant to be used for communication, get kids involved in actually communicating with one another! Rather than sit and ask a neighbor how they are doing, station kids around a room and have them walk around, introducing themselves or surveying how others are feeling.  Rather than match food pictures and words on a worksheet, have children ‘shop’ for items on their shopping lists by visiting ‘storekeepers’ who hold certain items in their ‘stores’ around the room.  The simple act of moving around to accomplish a task can help instill the actions, words, and context into the learning experience.

I learned this lesson quickly in one class where a young boy was constantly interrupting the quiet discussion, shouting out unrelated responses, and generally being very fidgety.  As soon as we started moving in a task-related activity, he was instantly engaged, completing his task far sooner than the other students. He asked if he could help out the others and went from student to student, helping with pronunciation, giving directions, and communicating in the target language more effectively.

Every teaching moment can’t be filled with action. But incorporating movement into each class helps engage kinesthetic learners in a fun and interactive manner.  What active games help your kids learn?  Share your ideas in our comment section below!

Cartoon Culture: Part 2

Listening with new ears

Say what? The problem with translation

Perhaps it’s my academic background, looking to analyze seemingly normal situations to find the hidden meaning, but I was struck by a cartoon episode I saw the other day involving a bilingual unicorn/dog couple and their friends.  Lady Rainicorn, the Korean-speaking unicorn on Adventure Time, was conversing with her doggie husband, Jake, when Jake realized that he was the only one who understood her.  He divided his time between her and his friends, but they did not all hang out together.  Jake realized that it would be better if his friends could understand Lady Rainicorn’s language, so he found a ‘universal translator’ that enabled her words to be translated into English. The only problem was, instead of hearing her speech in her own high, sweet girl voice, the collar can only translate her words into three voices called ‘nightmare’, ‘old man’, or ‘nerdy alien’, with the old man setting being the only one that everyone could understand.  See a 90-second clip of this episode here. While Jake’s friend was glad to understand the unicorn now, Jake is unsettled because her translated voice doesn’t really represent who she is.

More than words

Translation programs have been around for a long time, and are becoming more sophisticated as technology improves, much to the dismay of language teachers!  However, as Jake notes, there are certain aspects of conversation that do not translate well or do not accurately represent what is being said.  It may be that a single word in one language has many specific variations in another language, such as the oft-quoted theory that Inuit groups have dozens of words for ‘snow.’  Similarly, in Mandarin Chinese, you cannot speak of family as ‘sister’ or ‘uncle’ without specifying if the sister is older or younger, or the uncle is from the mother’s or father’s side, by marriage or by birth.  These language complexities give a lot of insight into the culture of a particular group and without a good understanding of the cultural context, we may miss out on a lot of meaning through simple ‘translation.’  In fact, a recent study shows that language is related to our cultural behaviors: we may be more inclined to save money or find our way in unfamiliar places based on what language we speak.

When thinking about learning a new language, consider the pros and cons of a simple translation tool–are you in a desperate situation that needs quick communication to resolve a problem? Then break out Google Translate and see if it helps.  But if you’re planning on traveling to learn about a culture or getting to know a new international neighbor, take the time to learn about the language and its insights into culture.  You’ll be speaking in your own voice and connecting on a deeper level with your conversation partner!


Pardonnez-moi: Learning Cultural Etiquette

Communicating with words and more

Learning to communicate involves more than just knowing what words to say. There are questions of how you say those words, when to use them appropriately, and also how to express yourself with your body,  hands, and behaviors.  I watched a World War II film recently in which an Englishman spying on German soldiers inadvertently seals his fate. He orders three drinks by holding up his middle three fingers–rather than using a thumb and two fingers as a German would–and this simple gesture gives him away.   Now, most cultural ‘faux pas’ won’t cause life or death consequences, but knowing the cultural etiquette of a country you are visiting can help you avoid embarrassing situations and manage the expectations you might have!

It’s about time.

In Greece or Brazil, punctuality is not extremely important; however, in Luxembourg you are likely to offend if you are not on time for a meeting.  Knowing the cultural expectation will help you know how to respond if you get out the door behind schedule.

Nice to meet you.

In many cultures, conversations begin with questions about how your family members are doing.  Take the time to answer and inquire about the other person’s family–these are not considered personal intrusions, but rather expressions of concern, respect, and politeness.

Don’t get touchy.

Russians might use lots of hugs, back-slapping or other physical displays when conversing, while Taiwanese are more reserved and may nod rather than shake hands upon first meeting.  In some countries, people stand very close when talking.  To others, this may feel like an invasion of ‘personal space.’

Take time to learn about the cultural etiquette of different countries.  This site offers many examples of behaviors to expect when greeting, meeting, dining, and visiting other countries.  After reading about other places, what examples of cultural etiquette can you give for YOUR country?  List your thoughts below in our comment section!

Learning Creative Communication: a tribute to Shel Silverstein

Learning to love your mistakes

I love Shel Silverstein’s books. As a kid, I memorized many poems from “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic.” And I was thrilled when my own sons discovered the same funny verses and quirky illustrations that made me crack up as a kid. One of the things that I love about Shel Silverstein (and Dr. Suess, for that matter) is the creative way he expresses himself and entertains with made-up words, silly rhymes, and creative illustrations. Reading is FUN and sometimes non-sensical, but even if the words are invented, the reader still learns quickly what’s going on.

I saw the book “Runny Babbit” recently, and it made me think of all those times when I mixed up my foreign language words or tried to translate my English thoughts exactly into what I thought would be comprehensible French. (For those who are not familiar with the book, check out this short animation of the first few lines.) I’m sure I sounded like one of Silverstein’s poems, mixing Franglais with gestures and a few invented words to try and get my message across.

It is easy to stress out over grammar rules, word genders and pronunciation when you are trying to perfect a new language. But rather than worry about perfection, think of your mistakes as a sort of “creative communication.” Channel a little Shel Silverstein and express yourself the best you can–you might be surprised how much your conversation partner understands! Even if they smile or smirk as you stumble over a word (or sentence or paragraph), just pat yourself on the back for being able to provide a little linguistic entertainment, Silverstein-style!