Language is a tool, perhaps the most powerful one we have, and this applies to our secondary languages just as much as our primary ones. Having two languages is, in fact, doubly empowering. Being bilingual, or multilingual, actually changes your brain, making it more flexible, more resourceful, better at problem-solving, and better able to see things from different points of view, so more empathetic.
But learning languages doesn’t have to be a sedentary practice. And that’s why 5-A-Day Fitness is such a great resource. When using the videos, students are literally jumping up and down along with the bilingual fitness routines (I’m tempted to add “with joy”, because, in my experience, the feel-good factor is off the scale, getting pupils learning and smiling at the same time).
It is not exclusively a languages resource, but it is intrinsically cross-curricular (with physical education and music). It caters for French, Spanish and Welsh, with excellent voiceovers and on-screen translations. You can see and hear the instructions synthetically as you jump up and down, click your fingers and clap your hands; you can choose to hear the words and see the meaning, or you can switch off the sound altogether to test pronunciation and memory. It’s great for practising basic vocabulary (nouns, verbs, prepositions) and directions, and brilliant for the imperative.
The five-minute fitness routines have been created by physical education specialists and are designed for key stages 1 and 2, offering themes including pirates, superheroes, robots, Bollywood and workout (a star rating system indicates differentiated levels of pace and complexity). The videos are great for getting children up and ready for learning, which makes them ideally suited to the start of the day. But they can be just as useful for bringing energy to an afternoon slump, or just when switching from one topic to another.
It’s easy to see why children enjoy 5-A-Day Fitness. What makes it so appealing to teachers, however, is that it is so practical and easy to use. You just switch it on and go. There is no need to change into PE kit, move the furniture or troop off to a dedicated space. There is no teacher preparation required at all, and no PE or music or languages training is necessary.
Specialist language teachers can extend and develop the resources in creative, far-reaching ways, of course. Your pupils are learning Polish, Urdu or Japanese? Get them to translate the English text supplied by 5-A-Day into their target language, switch off the sound, and add their own script. They’ll get a buzz out of being creative while also practising high-level writing skills.
It is well documented that a kinaesthetic approach to languages helps to embed vocabulary and grammar in the brain, even for those who are well adapted to the academic approach of book learning, or who thrive on direct instruction from the front of the class.
We remember songs more easily than poems, and poems more easily than prose, because of the physical power of rhythm. By linking words to deeds, we make them more meaningful, and therefore easier to retain, and we map our linguistic pathways in the brain. It’s how we learn in the first place, by copying our carers, applying our knowledge, falling over and picking ourselves up again. Language teachers have always known this, and advocated ways of making words and phrases visible and audible, through games and rhymes and song.
And while it’s true that class competitions can motivate, they also judge, select and exclude, which can switch children off as much as on. But the positive inclusiveness of 5-A-Day Fitness – which has intelligent adaptations of old favourites like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (for basic nouns) and Simon Says (for imperatives) – cuts out the stress and frustration of competitive games.
If you were going to argue for a tool that is even more powerful than language, it might well be movement, and with 5-a-Day you get two for the price of one. Your pupils will thank you; they will become not only multilingual but also better dancers as well.
Dr Heather Martin is languages teacher currently based at the Graduate Center, City University of New York