The Best Games to Practice and Learn a Language


Learning a language should be fun!

It doesn’t matter which language you’re learning, and it honestly doesn’t matter what age you are. If you’re having fun, you’ll remember the lesson better. Adults enjoy playing games and laughing just as much as children do, but we sometimes forget that.

Whether you’re teaching a language, or learning one yourself, games are a really fun way to do “homework” without feeling like a drag.

For example, I Spy is a great game to promote conversation. It’s free, it’s easy, and you kind of trick the student into talking. You can play this anywhere, and in any language, whether you’re in the classroom or in the car.

I remember being in Spain and looking for towels. I couldn’t remember how to say the word “towel.” I was trying to describe them by saying the words I could remember. I told her “it’s something I use to dry myself off.” In essence, I was actually playing I Spy with the her!

Another quick, fun game that’s also FREE is Hangman. I love playing Hangman with my students in English and Spanish. It’s a great way to practice letters, vocabulary and spelling. It’s also great for two people or group lessons if you put students in teams.

Any of the following games work fabulously in an ELL class, as well as a foreign language class. Instead of describing the words in English, you simply describe them in the language you study. Bam! It’s a great way to do family/friend time while keeping those tongues sharp.

Apples to Apples Junior (green box) is a great game for young and adult learners. The words are perfectly conversational; however, it’s not too easy.

 

 

 

 

The adult version of Apples to Apples (red box) is also a lot of fun, but there are a lot of proper nouns in there like “Oprah” and “World War II,” which might be more difficult for younger speakers to explain even in their native language.

 

 

 

I love Scrabble for vocabulary practice. Plus, it’s super fun if you’re as competitive as I am!

It’s a great game for up to four people, but you have to be careful that you don’t spend the whole time silently thinking of words to use. We are practicing language after all!

 

 

Hedbanz is a fun game where you put a card on your head. You can either practice asking questions to find out the word on the card or you can have teammates describe it to you. It’s a fun, silly game to get you talking no matter how you play it. There are adult and kid versions, so you can choose based on difficulty level.

 

 

Taboo is another favorite of mine for private and group lessons. It’s even more difficult than the games listed above, as there are words that you cannot use to describe the word you’re looking for.

It’s a wonderful game for EFL classes and there are so many variations that you could use to get students talking. Even if you don’t use it for language practice, it’s just a really fun game to play.

There are so many ways to learn a language and you don’t have to feel like your only option is workbook exercises. The best way to learn is by using a variety of different methods, so why not use some really fun ones?

Are there other games you love that help you with your language skills or are there other games you love to use in the classroom? Let me know and I’ll add them to the list.

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Interview with Jeffrey Benson, Author and Educator


Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to become acquainted with Jeffrey Benson. He is an experienced educator who just finished writing a book titled Hanging In–Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most. The book is due out in January, but I am so excited to give you a sneak peak into the book before it becomes available in January, 2014! You can order your copy prior to publication from ascd.org.

HangingIn cover

I should tell you that Jeffrey has a remarkable way of writing that makes this book an appropriate read for really just about anybody. Even if you don’t work with this demographic, chances are, you know somebody with these learning difficulties. People who can especially benefit from this book are: adult students earning their teaching degrees in special education and administrators in particular, social workers, psychologists, guidance counselors, occupational therapists, school nurses, legislators who vote to fund programs, parents of students with special needs… basically everybody.

I reached out to Jeffrey to do this interview because many people have come to me asking for language learning help for students with learning difficulties. Here is what he had to say:

What types of learning difficulties do you normally work with?

I have worked with students whose primary disability–or at least what was the barrier for full inclusion–were social/emotional. That said, so often those disabilities were endlessly interplaying with dyslexia, dyscalcula, attention difficulties, executive functioning weaknesses, non-verbal learning disabilities, Aspergers, etc. etc.

Do you feel like students with learning difficulties benefit from learning two or more languages? If so, how?

If we are considering students with language based disabilities, I’ve seen no evidence that the struggle they have with their primary language is the result of any unique demands of that language; i.e. if you are not learning one language effectively, you will not learn a second language effectively. I am speaking here of students over the age of 10, when learning a second language is no longer done without concerted effort. It would be interesting to see any studies of students who grew up bi-lingual and the types of language based learning disabilities in that population. But by the time I’ve worked with students, it is past the age when one learns multiple languages through childhood immersion. We should offer them the option of learning a second language, and in consultation with parents, definitely give them an opt out. My students with non-language based learning disabilities benefited from any subject that they were drawn to master–sometimes it was a second language–but i always supported an opt out for them as well, given the level of intention one needs in order to be successful in acquiring a second language.

Many students feel frustrated that they haven’t had much/any success learning a foreign language. In your experience, are there certain techniques that work better for students with learning difficulties?

You would need to see where the individual’s breakdown was in learning their primary language–and what interventions were helpful there–and go into the second language study fully prepared to employ those interventions from the start. If you can’t understand the barriers they have in their primary language, it just seems cruel to ask them to learn a second language. I would allow any student to go for it, and use my relationship with him/her to guard against overwhelm, and to see what we can learn together about the difficulties in language learning for the student. Are there general guidelines? Sure: use visuals and objects and role plays to continually offer various “ladders into the pool”–don’t teach from one mode; repeat the very same lesson in the interest of comfort and fluency, so don’t be in a rush; be prepared to articulate very clearly every rule; don’t assume anything will be generalized until it is; be prepared to break a task into a smaller step; be prepared to listen to the student as he/she explains their sense making to hear where there is even a subtle mis-understanding; don’t get lost in the weeds–move on from a frustrating spot and circle back to it in another context rather than crucifying the kid on one rule; celebrate success

Many parents have also come to me sharing their frustration. They want to help their children as best they can, but they don’t know how. What are a few techniques that you can recommend for parents and teachers to aid their students more effectively?

Listen to the kid! So often they reach overload and no one is noticing in their own anxiety to push the kid on. Instead of pushing the kid into new territory, have fun playing with/reviewing what the student can already do–it can only help to build fluency and a sense of competence. Almost no student actually becomes bi-lingual in school, so don;t ruin what has to be for almost everyone a life-long effort to learn a second language. For all but a few inherently strong language learners, schools provide exposure, so be clear about whether you are trying to help the kid pass this very difficult course, or whether you are holding out hope that the kid is on the way to being bi-lingual. For most people, bi-lingual is not happening, and even less so for a student with a language based learning disability. Have fun with it so it stays fun. Follow the student’s lead.

Of course all learning difficulties are not alike, so treatment and techniques will differ for each person. What is your advice for parents with children who have learning difficulties?

1) Patiently be willing to do important things with them again and again and again and again. Having a disability is not a moral weakness (to paraphrase Ed Hollowell)–it’s hard to get things mastered without a lot of gentle repetition.

2) Prepare the student for the environment AND prepare the environment for the student. That means be prepared to teach them what they might not see or learn as most kids do, and take out of the environment unnecessary barriers to learning the most important stuff.

Jeffrey cover photo 5 - Version 2

Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years of experience in education: as a teacher in elementary, middle, and high schools; as an instructor in undergraduate and graduate programs; and as an administrator in day and residential schools. He has studied and worked side by side with national leaders in the fields of special education, learning theory, trauma and addiction, school reform, adult development, and conflict resolution. He has been a consultant to public and private schools, mentored teachers and principals in varied school settings, and has written on many school-based issues. The core of Jeffrey Benson’s work is in understanding how people learn–the starting point for everything that schools should do.

Jeffrey and his colleagues also have a website called LeadersandLearners.org where they have posted a curriculum he co-wrote on promoting dialogues in school that you should check out.

You can contact Jeffrey directly at: JeffreyBenson@LeadersAndLearners.org

It’s Raining Chairs!


On a rainy day a while back, I was talking with Vicky on the phone and she screamed, “ahhhh, it’s raining chairs!” We both started laughing and she explained that it’s a popular expression in Greek, although it doesn’t quite translate the same way into English.

raining chairs large
Photo Credit: Jamie McCaffrey

On the other hand, I’m sure there are people in other countries that think “it’s raining cats and dogs” is equally outlandish!

I love how every language has its own set of colorful proverbs and idioms that make it so beautiful and unique.

So on this rainy day in Boston, I’ll be looking out my window and celebrating the raining chairs!

What are some of your favorite expressions in English or any other language? I’d love to hear from you!

The Benefits of Being Bilingual


There are so many reasons that every person should be at least bilingual, if not multilingual. It feels like every day the world is shrinking a little bit. With international travel becoming easier and more accessible, and the internet making international communication and business just clicks away, it is in our best interest to start working on our foreign language skills today. After all, just being able to say “donde está el baño” doesn’t mean we’ll be able to understand someone when they explain to us in Spanish where the bathroom actually is.

There have been numerous studies that bilingualism helps develop cognitive function in both children and adults. It has also been shown to stave off Alzheimer’s and decrease the loss of cognitive function in older adults. Bilingualism serves all of us well at every point in our age spectrum.

If you have children, as a parent, you should be aware of the importance of bilingualism. You work hard to feed and clothe your children, and of course you want your children to be well prepared for school and work. Providing them with a bilingual education is another wonderful way you can help your child to be everything that he/she can be.

Libros en Español
Photo by Enokson

Bilingual education for children has been shown to increase vocabulary in both languages, improve self-esteem and also enhance cultural awareness and sensitivity. Many private schools require the working knowledge of two languages. Additionally, many universities require some foreign language knowledge.

If you are an adult learning a language, I’m sure it has been brought to your attention more than once, that knowing even a few words in another language comes in handy at one time or another. You don’t want to be the only person at a dinner table in a French restaurant who can’t order his/her own food, and you especially don’t want to be stuck in an airport with no idea how to get to your hotel because you can’t talk to the taxi driver. In this economy, you also don’t want to be turned down for a job solely because you are monolingual. Even if you do get hired as a monolingual employee, you should know that your multilingual peers are most likely making more money than you. The benefits are evident and motivational.

Meeting nieuwe leden
Photo by Voka – Kamer van Koophandel Limburg

Yes, it is easier to learn another language as a child, but if you are a monolingual adult, please do not let that stop you. It will be a little more challenging, but believe me, it will be totally worth it! Join a class, get a tutor, start listening to podcasts. Do whatever you can to start learning a language right now. With every new word you remember, you will be motivated to continue.

Feel free to contact me with any questions on how to get started. If you’re learning Spanish or English, I can help you myself. If you’re learning another language, I can can give you some direction on where to go.

As you can tell, I’m obviously a proponent of multilingualism, but if you don’t believe me, check out some of these sites with facts and information about the advantages of being bilingual. Ciao!

Quick Tips for Learning a Language


So here we are in February. If you are anything like me, those resolutions you made just a month ago are a fond memory. If so, don’t fret because it’s not too late make a positive change.

Here are some quick tips on how to improve your language skills in only minutes a day.

  • Set up mini-goals. Every time you reach a goal, you will receive that necessary motivation to reach your next mini-goal.
  • Reward yourself when you hit your goals. After memorizing 20 new words or writing your first diary in that language, go out and buy a coffee, get a manicure or go see a movie!
  • Schedule just 20 minutes into each day that you devote to your learning. This time can be spent doing anything from watching a tv program, listening to music or reading out loud. Eventually, this 20 minutes will become a habit.
  • Go old fashioned. Get a pen pal from that country.  
  • Follow a blog in that language.
  • Spend money. I’ve found that nothing lights my motivational fire than money spent. Take a class or buy some movies or music.
  • Make a recipe from that country. Better yet, use a recipe in that language.
  • Celebrate! Celebrate holidays, traditions, culture, dance, etc.  You could have a party that recognizes that culture in some way.
  • Recruit a friend. When learning a language, a speaking partner will be absolutely necessary. This will also be important because you can hold each other accountable for any slacking!
  • Try to think in that language. Constantly translating in your head back and forth gets very tiresome and will create frustration.
  • While listening, try to focus on the main idea, not just individual words.
  • Smile! People will understand you’re not a native speaker and most people will be delighted that you are learning their language and trying to communicate.
  • Travel. Nothing will give you the language bug quite like traveling. Get out and see new places, meet new people and have fun with your new language skills!!

Remember to keep it fun because if you are enjoying the process, you’ll be more inclined to stick with it. If you miss a day, just make sure you don’t miss the next day.

Also, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not learning fast enough. If learning a language were easy, everybody would speak 10 languages!

As always, if you have any tips that have worked for you, feel free to share.

Happy Learning!!

For the Parents


In my 13 years of teaching experience, nothing has made quite a difference in the learning curve of my students as when the parents are involved in their children’s education. It’s pretty interesting, because many parents are very hands-on with all their children’s school subjects with the exception of language, art and music. (I don’t teach art or music, but I do think they are also crucial to a child’s personal and creative development. In this post, I will only touch on language, but it is not my intention to imply that art or music are any less important.)

Nobody should expect their children, themselves or their students for that matter to be fluent in a language if their only exposure is that weekly 60 minute lesson. Most kids spend much more time than that playing video games or updating their FaceBook pages, yet we are still surprised when students can’t speak after 2 years of classes.

Parents and other family members should take an active interest in their children’s language learning as well. Even a couple minutes a day can make a huge difference in a student’s language growth. For example, when you’re sitting down at dinner time, ask your child “what is this” in that language. If your child is learning Spanish, point to the dinner plate, glass, table or rice and ask “que es esto?”

Family having lunch at restaurant
Photo by Tetra Pak

So many of my younger students’ parents ask me if they should try to speak with their children when their accents are heavy or they don’t have perfect grammar themselves. I always say that a little practice with some mistakes is better than no practice at all. The main goal is to communicate with others in that language. If you can do that at home, chances are, you’ll feel a lot more confident to try speaking with a native speaker. I normally find that people hesitate to speak with native speakers, not because they can’t speak, but because they’re scared.

So what happens when your child is learning a language that you have never studied? You should take this opportunity to study the language from scratch right along with your child. Try some of the following techniques to learn even the basics of the language with your child.

  • Hire a private tutor to come work with you and your child
  • Check out the many language learning websites for helpful tips, vocabulary lists and pronunciation guides
  • Check your community to see if there are language groups you can join
  • Make a weekly foreign film movie night
  • Label different things around your house and make it a family affair to try to learn more vocabulary
  • Celebrate holidays and festivals from that country
  • Try a new recipe from that country
  • Subscribe to online or paper magazines/newspapers in that language
  • Start listening to music from that country and try to sing along
  • Write your shopping lists in that language
  • Do some research to see if there is a popular game from that country you can play with your family
  • Play I Spy in the car (of course in that language)
  • Have fun – Everybody’s idea of fun is a little different, so be creative and do something with your family to include your child’s own personal interests, while speaking in that language

Let me know how these techniques work for your family and if you have any other ideas to share!

Adios!

Use Your Senses


Have you ever smelled something and it made you recall a certain memory? Do you ever see a building or a person and it reminds you of a place your person you used to know? Have you ever heard a song that reminded you of a specific time in your life?

Smell(Photo by Dennis Wong)

I’m a firm believer that our senses heighten our memories and enable us to recall facts and information more effectively. Whether you’re a native English speaker learning a new language or you are learning English as a Foreign Language, using more senses during your studies can really help you memorize information and vocabulary better.

The next time you study, why not try some of these ideas?

  • Read a magazine article aloud
  • Sing along with the radio
  • Use subtitles on the television and try to say the words with the actors
  • While cooking, taste different ingredients as you say their names
  • Close your eyes and smell different flowers or foods and describe them
  • Go outside and speak with a native speaker
  • Write down words you hear on the radio or television
  • Eat a meal from that country and describe it orally or on paper… or both!
  • Touch different things in your house and say their names or describe the textures

Using your senses as you learn (or teach) a language encourages you to have fun and add creativity to your learning experience. Don’t be afraid to try new things. I encourage you to try to use all five of your senses this week during one activity. I’d love to hear how it goes!

Have a great week!