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Le Petit Nicolas et mes petits gars

Le_petit_NicolasBook cover of ‘Le petit Nicolas’, by Goscinny & Sempé, Denoël, 1960

It’s back to school and my boys are now in Year 3, where they will soon be starting formal language lessons! Hurray! Their Junior School has decided upon French, so I thought I would get them used to the idea with 10 minutes of language learning here and there. But how to make it fun, and also relevant to two boisterous 7-year olds who would rather be running around outside with their friends? Enter ‘Le Petit Nicolas‘ helpfully available in 12 minute bursts (and longer) on youtube. This is the animated series based on the classic French children’s books written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Jean-Jacques Sempé. Nicolas runs around with his friends, loves playing football and exasperates his parents and teacher.  So my two were hooked straight away 🙂

So did it matter that they didn’t know any French beyond ‘Bonjour’? Nope. They just wanted to watch what happened to our French hero and fell about laughing because of the slapstick comedy. For example, there is an episode where a football is stuck up in a tree, so one of the boys throws up a football boot to try to free it. The football boot falls back down and bonks its owner on the nose (much hilarity here) and a second attempt sees the boot stuck in the tree next to the ball (oh no!).

So how are my little monkeys actually learning any French? Well I started by picking an episode at random and bicycle_01.svg.medasking them to listen out for the word in the title, in this case ‘le vélo‘ (bike). Sometimes they shouted out “he said vélo!” but mostly they just enjoyed watching the show. Even though they only understood a couple of words, they were actively listening (at least some of the time) to authentic conversations in another language. I think this is important because they can hear how it sounds different to the languages they already know (English, and to some extent, German).

We have also listened out for phrases such as ‘Je suis malade!‘ (I’m not well!) but the word of the moment is chouchou (teacher’s pet), which seems to get said by Nicolas and his friends quite a lot! So far we have a list of about 20 different words and phrases that have been explained and are recognisable (in context). And the theme tune is very catchy too!

I must admit, they do ask me to translate some of the exchanges between the characters. Sometimes I oblige, if it’s not obvious from the context and it seems important to the plot. But mostly I just ask them to enjoy what’s happening on the screen and listen out for certain words.

There is also a feature length film (not animated) that would be great to watch some time. And I will be looking out for the original books so I can introduce my little men to Nicolas in print as well as on screen. For the moment though I think I’ll just show them this little cartoon, the next time I try to get their hair cut …

Chouette me voilà! Tout ça l’enfance!

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Making a song and dance about language learning

One great gibson_sg_kamil_st_pi_sk_01.svg.medway of inspiring people to learn about new languages and cultures is through music. In the classroom we should perhaps ‘put down the textbook and pick up a drum‘ but also burst into song as, according to researchers at The University of Edinburgh, ‘singing can facilitate foreign language learning‘. Of course there are plenty of simple nursery rhymes and, at this time of year, Christmas carols that we can start off with, but if you are craving something a little more contemporary there are few suggestions for German songs below. (Thanks to the Goethe Institute (London) for its Spotify playlist which is how I came across some of these tracks). From an educational point of view these are great for hearing language in context, learning colloquialisms and picking up elements of German culture from the lyrics and the accompanying videos. But more importantly they have great singing, catchy choruses and fab melodies. I would also say that you don’t need to understand the words to appreciate the music. Enjoy!

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A favourite tune in Germany this year as it became the anthem for the World Cup but it was originally written about going out and having a good time with friends. A great feel good song: Andreas Bourani – Auf uns. And there’s also a version with the lyrics so you can sing along.

And if you’re a fan of lyrics in a large font across your music videos, you’ll like this one from Chima: Das große Schweigen

Gorgeous song, gorgeous girls – Laing – Neue Liebe.You will come away singing ‘Ich bin so verlieeeebt‘ (I’m so in love)

Ziehst Du mit‘ by MINE – lovely singing voice and great for hearing how the German rolled ‘r’ should be sung (from 0:52, at the start of the female vocals)

An oldie but a goodie – Die Fantastischen Vier were popular back when I was at Uni …! Lots of great travinyl_disc_philippe_coli_01.svg.medcks to choose from but have plumped for ‘Sie ist weg‘ [Ja, ja, wunderbar / tolle Rede, Mann!] and ‘Tag am Meer‘ (a chill out track)

This one is cheating a bit as the lyrics are in English, but this beat combo is Austrian: Klangkarussell – Sonnentanz. A nice dance track.

But for some proper dancing about, you can’t beat ‘und du tanzt‘ by faakmarwin. Also great for learning how to conjugate the verb tanzen [‘..und er tanzt, und sie tanzt, und du tanzt!‘]

Probablydjmixing_patricia_fidi_01.svg.med not for young kids this one: SEEED – Augenbling but great bass line and a definite Ohrwurm.

Another somewhat grown up one due to the lyrics: Neonschwarz – Hinter Palmen. Fab for dancing around to or at least some vigorous foot tapping.

Do you like expensive cars? The Bilderbuch – Maschin video is for you.

A great rap from Blumio: Hey Mr Nazi

[Hey Mr Nazi komm auf meine Party / Ich stell’ dir meine Freunde vor /
Das hier sind Juspi und Kati, Thorsten und Nefatih / Wir haben den selben Humor /
Und wir sagen hey Mr. Nazi komm auf meine Party ich zeig dir meine Kultur / Das hier sind Sushi und Technik, Mangas und Origami / ich kenn das seit meiner Geburt]

And finally, fun pop that celebrates multicultural relationships – what’s not to like? SAM – Hallo?!

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Summer brain boost!

I recently came across an article about teacher parents who plan to take their two daughters out of school for a year of learning on the road because they felt “…the girls weren’t flourishing in the same way at school as they were during the family time.” This struck a chord with me as over the summer holidays my six year old boys became much more open to sharing their knowledge and learning new things. In relation to languages, they asked me to read books to them in German (instead of their usual resistance to the idea), for the first time tried reading the occasional German or French word themselves and actually responded to me when I spoke them in our semi-adopted second tongue. Some people talk about the summer ‘brain drain’ where children’s learning regresses somewhat over the long holiday but for us it seemed that the opposite happened.

Home (or indeed on-the-road) schooling isn’t an option for us right now but we are working hard to maintain this enthusiasm for language learning at home and in our classes. We can launch right in with preparing activities to celebrate the European Day of Languages on 26th September – this is a celebration of all languages, not just those spoken in Europe and is a great way to get children excited about communicating in another tongue. I’ll be asking questions such as: What languages are spoken in your family? How do children around the world say hello? In chinese it is ni hao! (你好!) and in russian it is zdra-stvooy-tye! (Здравствуйте!) This would be a great opportunity to introduce children to different written scripts and the musical quality of other languages.

Latest research: Even more reasons to study a foreign language: Bilingual babies benefit from learning faster and learning a foreign language can increase the size of your brain.

News round up: Scottish independence is of course a hot topic but our friends north of the border are also leading the way with language learning in primary schools. The plan is to introduce the European Union 1+2 model where every child will learn two languages in addition to his or her mother tongue. Let’s hope they find the funds to actually make this happen! And of course formal language learning for Key Stage 2 pupils has now commenced – will this stop the decline in the numbers taking a language at A-Level?

Upcoming events: We have signed up for the Language Show Live in October. Looking forward to meeting other passionate linguists and language teachers!

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From little linguists to language graduates?

One of the joys of teaching pre-school children is how they respond in class. When I ask ‘Wo ist Wolfi?‘ (Where is Wolfi?) they instantly leap up, shouting and pointing out his hiding place; there is enthusiastic knee-slapping and foot stomping whilst we sing our Guten Morgen song; and some children instantly fall in love with certain toys and puppets that we bring along.

In noticing how much the children are growing in confidence, especially after only a few weekly sessions, I feel pride, and also hope that they will find it easier to engage with and enjoy formal language learning at school. This is especially because this September languages will be introduced as a compulsory subject area for pupils at Key Stage 2. This means that all children 7 years and up will get the chance to start learning any modern or ancient language, such as German, Spanish or Latin.

This is a fantastic opportunity for children to learn different ways of thinking and communicating, and about other cultures. I’d like to think it could also improve the general standard of foreign language ability at secondary school. Rather embarrassingly, the 2012 European Survey on Language Competences ranked English teenagers as some of the least proficient overall in terms of foreign language skills, when compared with their European counterparts. Unfortunately, foreign languages cease to be compulsory at Key Stage 4, but hopefully the additional years of tuition will give a further boost to the numbers choosing a language GCSE.

I also have the vague and distant hope that today’s little linguists might in turn be inspired to go on and study languages at university. Why? For the sheer pleasure of it, for the myriad benefits of multilingualism but also, more prosaically, because it might help them get a job. As there are fewer students taking a degree in modern languages at UK universities, language graduates are currently in high demand in the workplace. And if the high tuition fees are offputting, then those language skills could be used to study somewhere in Europe where studying for a degree can be much cheaper than doing so at home.

Of course thoughts about a career are a long way off for today’s pre-schoolers and their parents. A more relevant question might be: Why aren’t languages being introduced into the infant school classroom as well as at junior school? If we truly want to reverse the decline in language skills shouldn’t we start whilst children still have a high degree of linguistic sensitivity? In fact, north of the border young children will soon be learning not one but two foreign languages! The Scottish Government has committed to children learning a second language at Primary 1 (Reception year) and a third no later than Primary 5 (Year 4).

Our little language learners and nurseries are so enthusiastic about speaking and singing in German and Spanish. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if our infant schools and teenagers could be encouraged to do the same?

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Baby Einstein

Today’s session teaching German to pre-schoolers got me thinking about how very young children and babies learn a language. I came across this great 10 min TEDx talk on the linguistic genius of babies. Patricia Kuhl describes newborn babies as “citizens of the world” because they can discriminate between all the sounds of all the languages of the world. Adults on the other hand are “culture-bound listeners” as we can only identify the sounds of our native tongue(s).

Between the age of 6 and 12 months babies’ brains lock onto the sound patterns of their mother tongue. This means the ability to identify specific sounds from other languages (e.g. the Japanese ‘r’) gradually decreases. This linguistic sensitivity slowly diminishes until around the age of 7 and then starts to decrease quite dramatically. By adulthood we have lost most of our ability to distinguish between the sound patterns of foreign languages, which is why it is so hard to learn a second language when we are older! And also why it is so important for young children to have access to foreign languages. Learning a second language really does seem to be child’s play.