Lesson 1: How to get cracking in languages

4th September 2015 at 15:39



It's not the Book of Genesis. Day 1, Lesson 1, in the Languages Classroom. You don't have to begin at the beginning. Act as though you and your pupils have known each other for months and already have a great working relationship. Act as though they already know lots, because they do, even if not necessarily about the language you are there to teach. 

Avoid any kind of metaphorical sharpening of pencils or mañana mentality. If this is literally your first encounter with a particular class, then by all means begin by lining up in silence and seating in silence to your own preordained plan. But otherwise try deferring until at least Lesson 2 any planned discussion of ground rules or mundane distribution of text books, along with intimidation by high heels or hard glares, and any well-intentioned ice-breaking or getting-to-know-you games.

Avoid above all buying into any latent negativity about languages - 'what's the point, too difficult, no good, don't like' - that might have been instilled by previous experience or by overly anxious parents or the national zeitgeist. If you express sympathy for the challenges ahead or empathise too readily with the natural anxieties of your new pupils these things are more likely to be augmented than assuaged. In this case, perhaps as an exception to the rule, it is best to avoid seeing the business of language-learning from anyone's point of view other than your own: for YOU will be enthusiastic, YOU will be dedicated, YOU will be inspired. And you want to pass that positivity straight on in all its undiluted power. 

If there is one thing people seem to agree on in the realm of education, it is that teachers should have a passion for their subject and communicate that passion in the classroom. 'Passion' and 'passionate', in fact, are probably two of the most over-used and least considered words in job applications, sometimes to an almost comical extent. But although the words themselves may have been devalued, that special quality they seek to denote remains priceless. (And those teachers who are linguistically inclined always have the option of revisiting the word in class, bringing back to mind its religious connotations and its connection with 'compassion'.) 

To set the tone, give it your all from the outset: do it with feeling.

Avoid anything that resembles Step 1, in particular Page 1 of any textbook, however excellent it may be. Instead, try jumping right in in medias res so as to give your new linguists something substantial to take away. 

Start with the unexpected, without preamble: a mystery or challenge, some piece of intellectual magic, some aspect of your subject that delights, amuses, enchants or excites you. Something you love and love to share. Something that makes your subject - and your way of teaching it - distinctive, maybe even unforgettable.

Exactly what, will depend on you and the class you are teaching. It doesn't have to be something difficult, but try to avoid seeing things as more difficult than they are. Your pupils will be keen to rise to your confidence in them. Passion implies expertise, but not omniscience. Never worry about not knowing everything, but stand ready to model to your pupils how you deal with your own ignorance.

Here are just three different approaches, which are among my personal favourites in terms of impact and engagement. You will already have or will discover others of your own. In all cases I would prioritise pronunciation, paying scrupulous attention to accuracy and intonation from the very first attempt.

1. Start not just with individual words but with strings of sound, with rhythm and music. For Spanish, 'Ana come pan en la casa de San Juan' or 'Arroz con leche' are perfect for achieving quick results and generating plenty of feel-good factor. Display the words as a reference point, and to draw attention to key rules of spelling and stress, for example, but avoid translation beyond the level of a few hard-working or meaning-rich words or phrases that will transfer readily to other contexts. This is about establishing a feel for the language and developing an instinct. (Which is not to say that you won't be putting the nuts and bolts of grammar at the core of subsequent lessons.) A more ambitious and sustained variation on this theme would be to launch straight in to your chosen Christmas carol, de-emphasising the seasonal aspect and mining the text for as much linguistic and multi-disciplinary information as possible over the course of the term.

2. Riff on pairs of words both analytically and fancifully, as a way of capturing both intellect and imagination. Explore the possible links between hola and Allah through ¡ojalá! (with a touristic typographical detour via aloha should you wish), and don't be shy of the cross-language word play offered by ola (an ocean wave) and the Queenly greeting. Reveal the presence of God in Adiós (and Adieu) and take a fresh look at Good-bye, God be with you/ye, Go with God, and the more grandmotherly God bless. Or track the always interesting journeys of a) tierra - via terra and Terra Australis and terrestrial (and celestial) and ET and what extra really means (in extraordinary, for example) and (enemy) terrain and territory and terraces and most popular of all, terrier - and b) luna - satisfyingly easy to guess, but always surprising as it metamorphoses into Monday (and Montag) via lunes (and lundi and lunedi) and moon day. The scope of such adventure is limited only by time and the collective knowledge in the room. And there are frequent opportunities for speakers of other languages to chip in, to teach the rest of the class something none of us knew. 

3. Last but not least, give them a free pass to a secret vocabulary stash. Most obvious are the cognate nouns ending in '-tion' and '-ción' (if they're ready - they are - remember to teach that these are all feminine), which will give them a thrilling power of invention over the language; even more fascinating (though slightly more irregular) are those words beginning 'sp' or 'st' in English that all require the prefix 'e' when transported into Spanish. It is almost too good to be true that this group includes the words Spain, España, Spanish and español, though your pupils are liable to be more fired up by the forbidden fruit of estúpido...

The beauty of getting your teeth stuck straight into these activities is that not only will you be opening the door wide onto another world, another identity, a potential alter ego, but you will be getting your class thinking hard and perceptively about their own language too. What's not to like? It's a win-win situation.

Dr Heather Martin is a languages specialist, and assistant head (curriculum) at Kensington Prep School.