It really doesn’t matter where I get my hair cut, or what remains of it at least.
As a French and Spanish teacher, the response is inevitable as soon as the stylist asks what I do. “Ooh, I’m jealous. I did French at school and I wish I’d kept it up, but I wasn’t interested when I was younger.”
At this point, I imagine many language teacher colleagues across the globe are nodding their head, all too familiar with having to justify their subject’s place in the curriculum to students and, occasionally, even to school administrators.
In a world where a rapidly growing number of people use English as a second language and where translation technology is progressing, justifying the need for language learning to unmotivated learners is increasingly difficult.
Yet as practitioners, we know second language acquisition is beneficial to the learner in so many ways. Research has shown motivation may be the second most important factor in successful language acquisition after aptitude.
So, what can we do to motivate our learners during the short time we have with them, and leave them with positive experiences in language learning?
1. Make it fun
In my planning for learning, I have a rule: if you can turn it into a game, do it. Children love games. Even teenagers love games once they forget to be "cool".
During my time in an Edinburgh state school, a student teacher introduced me to a game called Le Chef – "The Boss".
Each child secretly draws a card with an item of vocabulary from my a "surprise bag" with the vocabulary also displayed on the board. In the target language, the children then take turns guessing which card their classmates have.
If they guess wrong, the questionee has the next guess, but if they guess correctly, the questionee becomes part of the questioner’s team, the questioner becomes Le Chef and asks the next question. This game continues until one Chef remains with the whole class on their team.
Since then, I spend a lot of time playing games with my key stage 2 students; it’s not uncommon for me to be asked if we can play the same game again, lesson after lesson.
The pupils think they’re just playing a game in French, but they’re actually acquiring new vocabulary or practising a specific grammar construct through repetition.
Fun can be found in the strangest of places. For example, my Year 6 love a bit of translation. So, when you find it, use it.
2. Make it accessible
In the low-pressure environment of the “fun” classroom, there is a place for every student to blossom. This is what I call the “I can” factor.
Meet your students where they’re at, because when students believe they can, that’s when they make progress. Scaffold your speech with actions when speaking in the target language.
Over time, students will come to associate your actions with certain words or phrases, but in the short term, it will help them to feel that they understand the target language.
To complement this, I also have a whiteboard dedicated to new vocabulary I have learned that month, often the result of a “How do you say…?” question.
In demonstrating the things we don’t know yet, we help our pupils in their development of a growth mindset.
3. Forget reality for a bit
“Reality is suspended” is a common mantra when my pupils are speaking and writing.
When pupils are constrained to speak the “truth” in the target language, not only do we limit the breadth of vocabulary they can use, but we also make it an awful lot less interesting.
Believe me, it’s much more fun and memorable to have a green cat with three eyes.
Praise every success, differentiate and, whether you are a trained linguist or not, learn along with your pupils – again this is where the new vocabulary whiteboard works wonders.
4. Make it safe
As part of that growth mindset, mistakes have to be allowed. I blow big raspberries any time I make a mistake; it makes the children giggle, but it also reminds them mistakes are OK.
When students are communicating the meaning correctly, avoid the temptation to correct minute grammar points. A focus on meaning and communication over a focus on accuracy helps to motivate pupils by creating a safe, low-anxiety environment.
Of course, errors can’t always go unchecked but instead of correcting pupils, recast what they say, modelling the correct form. For example:
Pupil: “I has a dog.”
You: “You have a dog!? I have a dog! Her name is Fluffy.” (Note: You do not have to have a dog, because reality is suspended.)
By recasting their speech, you avoid causing embarrassment or shame a pupil may feel from being explicitly corrected.
Fostering a love of language learning in our classrooms not only positively impacts progress through motivation but leaves our pupils with a positive view of language learning for years after they leave our classrooms.
Have fun, play games, suspend reality, praise communication, learn alongside your pupils, make mistakes, and remember: it’s more fun to have a green cat with three eyes.
Tim Tuckley is a primary languages specialist at Nord Anglia British International School of Chicago, Lincoln Park