Polyglots/language freaks lesson plan

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This is a lesson about learning languages quickly. The input is mostly in the form of videos, so your students get to develop their listening skills. More importantly, however, it uses five examples of savants – extraordinarily gifted/freakish language learners – in order to encourage your students to think about what they could do to improve their command of English as quickly as possible. Due to the demanding level of the input I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than a solid Upper Intermediate group. If you use all the material it should take between 75-90 minutes.

Procedure

  • Begin by telling the students you’re going to talk about learning languages -not just English. You want to start by finding out which languages they have a command of or would like to learn.
  • Stick up a piece of A4 paper on each of the four walls of the classroom. At the top of one write ‘I’m fluent in’; another ‘I can get by in’, the third ‘I know a few words of’ and the fourth ‘I’d love to learn’. Establish that in this context ‘be fluent in’ means ‘have a full command of’. Students walk round and add their names and languages to each sheet, eg. ‘Davide – French’. Monitor to clarify what the terms mean in case of confusion.
  • Have a brief whole class discussion, drawing on what they’ve written: ‘So, Sandra, you can get by in German’, or ‘So, Yuki, you’d like to learn Chinese’, etc.
  • Elicit/introduce the word ‘polyglot’. Decide together on the basis of the discussion who in the class could be considered a polyglot. Explain you’re going to watch two short interviews with polyglots. The first one is Alex, from the UK. Their task is to write down which languages he speaks.
  • Compare lists. If there is anyone who speaks any of the languages mentioned, ask how well Alex spoke it.
  • Then ask them: if a 20-year-old can speak 11 languages, how many could a 16-year-old speak?
  • They can then repeat the previous exercise with the second video. (NB: If you prefer, there is also a listening gapfill exercise here.)
  • Ask the student how the two polyglots learned all those languages – put them in pairs to discuss.
  • Tell them you’re going to watch two more videos which present very different methods for learning languages quickly. The students’ task is to choose which method they prefer.
  • Gather ideas. This will be very subjective- some will prefer the music/radio approach, others the book-based method. That’s fine.
  • Give them 5 minutes in small groups to discuss how the videos relate to their own language-learning experiences. Get one person in each group to report back on their discussion.
  • Tell them you’re going to show them one more video. Write on the board the phrase ‘from scratch’ and ask them what it means. Once the meaning is established, ask them how fluent you could become in a week in a completely unfamiliar language if you really dedicated yourself to it.
  • Tell them to take notes on: the name of the person; the language; the challenge; how successful they think he is at it. (NB: there is also a listening comprehension exercise here.)
  • Gather responses. Give them a chance to watch some or all of the video again if they need to.
  • Put on the board the following questions, and tell the students on their own to write down their responses:

1. Which example do you find most inspiring?
2. What lessons can you learn from the five videos you’ve seen?
3. What three specific things are you going to do in the next week to improve your English as much as possible?

  • Do a 5-minute whole class stand-up mingle in relation to the third question.
  • To close, elicit some of the things they’re going to do. Make sure they’ve chosen specific things, not just ‘read a book’ or ‘listen to music’. What book? What music? Remind them that they have a week to do those things and you will dedicate time in next week’s lesson to discussing how each thing went.

Det är det!

ps. there’s an interesting dimension to this whole polyglot thing, viz. why are most of those who go online to boast about their language skills men? You could open up this question with a higher-level class, using this blog entry (and the subsequent comments) to guide you.

French nudists and freak tornados on the Oaxaca Coast

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If you ever want to stay in a discreet nudist hotel, look out on Tripadvisor for codewords like ‘broadminded’, ‘especially for adults’ and ‘not child-friendly’. If you choose judiciously you may, upon walking through the door, be delighted – just like we weren’t – to see two French tourists splayed out in all their flaccid glory in the alfresco bar/reception area, umbrellas in their drinks and gallic pudenda making the most of the warm sea breeze*.

Conversely, if for some bizarre reason you don’t want to stay in such a place, do not choose places which are described as such. I.e: don’t make the same mistake that we did in Zipolite.

Like most tourist hotels and guesthouses we stay at in Mexico, the nudist colony happens to be foreign-owned. In Puerto Escondido itself we stay at a place owned by a Swiss couple, and when we move on to Mazunte the proprietors turn out to be French. The actually quite charming nudist place belongs to an Italian who got halfway to learning Spanish and then got stranded out of his depth. He flounders between the two languages in a way that’s distressing to witness. I would happily dive in and save him, but then he isn’t wearing a swimming costume. Italians love this bit of the Oaxacan coast, because it was the setting (and ‘Puerto Escondido’ was the title) of a 1989 film about a guy from Milan who looks like a young Silvio Berlusconi getting mixed up in drug smuggling, partly because of a series of misunderstandings. It’s therefore possible that the owner of the hotel didn’t know he was starting a naturist colony. It’s also possible I misunderstood the film as I was watching it in Italian and at this point, after three months in Mexico with my Italian wife, Itañol is rapidly becoming my best second language.

dsc_0694It’s certainly warm enough to strip off. We’re at the top of a cliff and the heat and wind are immense. I have to keep covered up, I tell everyone, because I’m scared of getting badly sunburnt. It wouldn’t be the first time. If you really want to know just how painful excessive exposure to the sun can be, go to Tioman Island in Malaysia at the hottest time of the year and spend five straight hours in the sun, dismissing every attempt by your sister to get you to put some suncream on. It hit me three or so days later on the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur: I was seized by an extremely insistent itching deep beneath my skin all over my chest, back and shoulders. Fearing that I might be having a heart attack brought on by excessive exposure to all the spiciest foods that Asia has to offer, I looked up the health bit of the Lonely Planet and learnt it was probably something called ‘prickly heat’, and that I should apply talcum powder asap. When I got to KL I ran like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, where to my relief I saw that they also sold something called ‘tiger balm’. The word ‘balm’ sounded soothing, like ‘calm’. Or ‘balsam’. Or ‘balsamico’. It doesn’t matter. It made it (at a generous estimate) about thirty times worse, and I spent my entire first, last and only evening in the Malaysian capital showering my torso with cold water. Which, in turned out, also made it worse. Over the next three days I became a gibbering monkey, incapable of more than ten seconds of conversation before I would have to go back to grimacing, scratching and at some points actually screeching. I never got to the point of stealing cameras and throwing my excrement at tourists, but I can tell you it was a pretty close shave.

It was such a traumatic experience that I’ve never made such mistake again, unless you count once in Spain, the first few days in Thailand and pretty much any time I’ve been anywhere really hot where the prospect of getting a fabulous suntan really quickly was just too good to pass up on. That’s why, on the second beachday in Zipolite, having magically overcome my aversion to exposing myself as soon as we left the hotel complex, upon feeling a familiar deeply-buried itch in my chest I run like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, desperately garbling some nonsense about cream-of-after-the-sunshine**. Luckily they do have some, so I down it in a single gulp, give a satisfying burp of relief and go back to working on that tan.

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It’s blisteringly hot but we can’t cool down in the sea. It’s just too wild. It was actually on this beach that the wife of the Mexican-American writer Francisco Goldman was killed by a wave about three years ago, an event he describes in the heartbreaking memoir ‘Say Her Name’. We move on to another village in search of calmer waves, less violent winds and the Perfect Beach Hut, and luckily soon come across a collection of round bungalows on stilts with bamboo walls. This is perfect, I murmur as we lay back on the bed. Sorry? mouths Chiara. I say it again, this time MUCH LOUDER, but it’s no good. It sounds like we’re at the top of Mount Popocatépetl in a Force 12 gale. Using sign language I manage to communicate that we should go downstairs and change our booking from three nights to one. The Parisean owner is thankfully very obliging once I’ve explained that we have to leave earlier than expected to look for my aunt’s favourite pen, which has got blown away PAR LE VENT.

The wind might be annoying to tourists, but it’s being put to good use a little further down the coast. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (quite a challenging name for a Spanish Spanish speaker to pronounce, I’d imagine) hosts most of the country’s wind farms. Although it obviously sounds laudable (and god knows Mexico desperately needs to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels) it’s more problematic than it might first appear. Objections have come from local indigenous people, who say that the resultant encroachment on their land and fishing resources has been accompanied by threats and attempts at bribery. Although in Europe campaigns against wind power are often fuelled and funded by fossil fuel companies or their self-appointed defenders (as this clip from the documentary ‘Age of Stupid’ demonstrates), in Mexico mitigating the effects of the changing climate will be, like so much else, riven by conflict between rapacious commercial interests and people whose land is their only livelihood.

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Not that this level of wind is normal, even for the Oaxacan coast. The following day we witness our, and apparently Mazunte’s, first ever tornado. It twirls inland a mere 200 metres down the beach and whips off a few roofs, but luckily no-one is hurt. For the second time in two months I narrowly avoid becoming a victim of climate change. Over the next few days no boats can go out to sea. On the last night of our holiday there’s a power cut, but the Italian restaurant next door is on hand with candles, lukewarm white wine and burnt pizza served up to a passionate soundtrack of Neapolitan swearwords. We move on to an open-air bar where they’re playing Electrocumbia (my new favourite kind of music). It takes a while to get going but then some French-Canadian crusties turn up with their dogs and take over the dancefloor. Maybe it’s the music, maybe the mezcal cocktails or maybe just the fact of being so far from home, but the dogs just can’t contain their romantic impulses. It adds another dimension to the phrase c’est une vie de chien, but it’s nice to know that it’s not only we humans who do slightly embarrassing things when we’re on holiday.

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* Apparently the French phrase for ‘wedding tackle’ is ‘bijoux de famille’ (lit: family jewels).

** Which I’ve learnt over the years is the product specifically designed for such situations.

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Wednesday After Work in the Park with Richard


An evidently confused woman walked up to me une fois in the centre of Dublin and asked me something in French with what sounded like ‘cherche’ and ‘GPO’ in it.

Now she might just have been asking ‘Vous cherchez le GPO, n’est pas?’, in which case the answer would have been ‘Sí (it’s true, it’s proper grammar and everything, look it up), je suis pas Joseph Connolly et nous ne sommes pas dans l’an 1916’. I evidemment presumed that she was asking me where the General Post Office (which was about 20 yards behind us) was, so I told her immediately. By pointing.

My French has become much better now, danke schön very much. As for other foreign languages: I can do every word in Chinese except for tree, politics and, er, word, and I will hopefully soon very much impress my girlfriend during our Mystery Holiday in Berlin next month (NB: THAT BIT MEANS I CAN SPEAK GERMAN – R. Willmsen 22/03/07); I can speak almost as much Spanish as every other smug fucker out there who just happens to speak fucking Spanish. Oh yes, and I am also learning Italian. Very, very slowly.

More significantly, I speak better Portuguese than José Saramago, and will one day have a job to prove it. Which is partly why, in Battersea Park on the Hottest Day Ever (does that mean it’s going to start getting colder now?!), sparsely surrounded by lots of people speaking the less passionate, more bored-sounding variety of the Portuguese language, on seeing a young black family walking towards me along the path, I, thinking that they may well be Angolan or maybe Portuguese or something, thought that I might say to them in a smiley fashion ‘Fala-se português por aqui!’ (they speak Portuguese round here).

I didn’t say anything, thereby soundly killing off any possibility that I might a) the same day become the subject of an entertaining ‘This sweaty guy we didn’t know said something to us in a language we didn’t understand!’ anecdote or b) become the firmest of friends with some people for about 2 minutes.

About sixteen seconds later another young black family walked past me, speaking Portuguese. In the treasured words of Alanis Morissette: You live, you learn.

Incidentally, has anyone else in the imperial capital noticed that every single cafe in the centre of London (with the honourable exception of ‘Brasil By Kilo’) is suddenly run by Portuguese people?! They’re everywhere all of a sudden, especially around here. Especially since I, you know, moved house. Quite a lot less Bangladeshi people too. That is not why I moved, by the way. I wonder if, one day, ‘the Portuguese cuisine’ will enjoy the same elevated position in our gastronomic hierachy as does that of our Polish communities. But as for competing with the Bengalis for a larger share of the cheaper end of the restaurant market…nem pensar!

Ni shuo zhongwen ma?


I’ve always found it a bit puzzling that people pay (often lots of) money to sit in a class and practise speaking foreign languages. Everyone on earth already has at least one language at their disposal and it’s not too hard to track down someone who wants to learn that language and in return will help you as your try your hardest to make yourself understood in their language. It’s just a case of tracking down that someone, which these days, what with the gumtree and whatnot, is not a very difficult task at all.

Of course occasionally you may, especially if you’re a woman, meet people with ulterior motives, or who are actually just really boring, or who laugh pitilessly every time you try and put a sentence together – or in the case of Mandarin Chinese, look at you with such puzzlement that you’d think you’d just told them there was something wrong with the Communist Party, whereas in fact you were simply trying to let them know that you come from Sheffield and you prefer broccoli to spinach. But on the whole it’s preferable to and a lot more effective than, say, paying €50 a month to some unscrupulous bastards who will continue fleecing your bank account long after the school has gone bankrupt and the teacher has fucked off back to London in poverty, or, if you’re Brazilian, will stick you in a tiny classroom on Oxford Street with eighteen of your compatriots so you end up speaking less English than you would back home.

Now I come to think of it, language teachers spend so much time trying to make their students pretend that they are not actually in a classroom at all that it really makes you question the point of being there in the first place.

Whateva. After I’d put an ad on the gumtree for people to practise my own rudimentary polygoticism with, I exchanged a couple of emails with someone who said they could help me with my Chinese, which would be nice, although somebody helping me with my Chinese is a bit like teaching my great-great German grandmother to speak Brazilian Portuguese, because my Chinese is hen bu hao. I was a bit busy at the time what with holidays, work and the problems on the Hammersmith & City Line to deal with, so I didn’t reply for ages, but when I did I realised that he must have been a very interesting guy to talk to, because he happened to mention that he had come to Britain to study in 1967.

Now obviously 1967 was the Summer of Love in the West, but in China, if anything I’ve ever read about that era is true, gangs of young people in uniforms roamed around the country kicking people to death simply because they had been known to wear glasses from time to time. Jung Chang, the writer of ‘Wild Swans’ and ‘Mao: The Untold Story’ was only allowed to leave in 1978 after extensive political preparation. Whoever this guy was, it was fairly clear that his eyesight, not to mention his devotion to the Party, must have impressed the Red Guards a hell of a lot in order to be allowed to escape the fate that befell millions of his contemporaries; sent away from the cities to harvest stones in the backwoods of absolutely nowhere for the greater glory of the Great Helmsman.

He must have had some experiences along the way which caused him to at least question Party rule. One of the guys I live with is I think quite typical of more recent generations of overseas Chinese in that he doesn’t particularly want to live in China but doesn’t think the Party is doing a bad job and sees Mao as generally one of the good guys. I haven’t met anyone who dissents from this point of view, or at least if I have they’ve had no good reason to tell me about it – although I did once have a short conversation with Harry Wu about teddy bears, and I mentioned my first shameful encounter with a Chinese political dissident here. I would really like to have the opportunity to meet some Chinese people who are explicitly not happy about how their country is run, and am wondering how to go about it.

I don’t want to just march up to the protestors outside the Chinese Embassy and offer my services to the Falun Gong, which seems to be the most prominent organised political opposition outside China. I have no great wish to set myself on fire in Tiananmen Square. But I guess if I can’t make contact with Chinese dissidents in London, then where can I? Does anyone have Wei Jingsheng’s email address?

Dych chi’n siarad Italian?


I take a certain amount of encouragement in life from the fact that I don’t speak Italian. Perche? Well, I have tried to learn, a little bit. I spent a few days in Rome years ago wondering why all those street signs with arrows on them all said ‘Unica Via’, and I can put together some simple phrases like ‘No me piacce il calcio’, ‘ Dove c’e musica’ and ‘Oggi ho fatto qualcosa nostra’, but I don’t I know if I’d be up to, say, having a short conversation about il tempo meterelogico. So how can my lack of basic Italian conversation skills be a source of encouragement, even pride?

Well, Signor Nessuno, what it is is that I like knowing that it will always be an opzione. If at any point I ever have cause to become really bored or despondent, like per exemplo if we ever get to the point where newspapers stop asking asinine rhetorical questions like ‘is it too late to prevent global warming’ and start accepting that we really are actually finito nella merda, then at that point I can always invest in a cheap grammar book and a copy of ‘La Republica’ or whatever the most left-wing daily newspaper is and comenzare (a?) aprendere.

See, it’s easy to learn Italian, and it’s fun and makes your brain grow. To the size of an Italian’s! If I ever get really interested in it I could always go and live there for a while, although one less radical option would be to find an intercambio. Recently I put an ad on the gumtree site ’cause of wanting to practice those few languages in which I can have a short conversation about the weather. Italian wasn’t one of them, obviously, which is why it was a bit of a sorpresa to recebere una risposta from una ragazza Italiana. Ma no voglio praticare mi inglese! I protested in reply. Alguni personi sono idioti.

I’d recommend this nozione of Learning Italian as Potential Life TherapyTM to anyone feeling down, bored or even suicida.

If you’re ever faced with someone – friend, family, or even someone you work with but don’t actually like – who is entertaining thoughts of topping theyselves, just ask ‘parle italiano?’ If by any chance they answer ‘Ma sono italiano!’, you could always try, I dunno, ‘Dych chi’n siarad Cymraeg?’, although that might actually not work in quite the same way. If you’re for any reason having this conversation with Berlesconi or Paulo di Canio, just tell them, in all seriousness ‘Penso, come amico, que la migliore cosa que le puoi fare è suicidaresi. Stronzo fascista‘.