How to make learning a language fun

GONE are the days when learning a foreign language was just a matter of memorising long lists of new vocabulary and doing countless grammar exercises. If you want to master a new language in an original and creative way, you should try the techniques of the performing arts.

GONE are the days when learning a foreign language was just a matter of memorising long lists of new vocabulary and doing countless grammar exercises. If you want to master a new language in an original and creative way, you should try the techniques of the performing arts.

The Slovak National Theatre (SND) recently hosted several experienced experts from European theatres – in Berlin, Hamburg, Saint-Etienne, Nottingham and Helsinki – who gave lectures and led workshops as part of a unique European educational project named Theatre – Education – Art. The aim of the project, which took place over the last weekend in February 2009, was to exchange experiences about linking theatre with school, educating through theatre, and other creative ways of education, the spokesperson of SND, Zuzana Golianová, wrote.

“To me, drama is a language,” Steven Clark, a French native and teacher of English as a foreign language and theatre studies at the Lycée in Evreux, Normandy and at a secondary school of pedagogy in Normandy, told The Slovak Spectator. He was among the experts with experience of teaching languages through drama. When using drama to teach foreign languages, Clark's basic idea is for students to forget about one’s own identity and try to overcome shyness, to get rid of inhibitions and feeling guilty for not saying or doing things properly, and to have fun and derive pleasure from exploring a foreign language, which is much like taking oneself back to the early stages of life when you learned your first language.

“Just take me: the language you speak here has, as we say in French, no point d’appui for me, meaning there is no word that I can use, that I can understand from your language because it is just so different,” Clark said about his first experiences in Slovakia. In this setting, one must use ways of communication other than language and this is why, for him, drama is a lovely way to come back to fundamentals.

“It’s not just communications, it's all about human relationships, and it's all about ‘are we pretending or are we really communicating with each other?’” said Clark, explaining his view.

“In taking communication back to basics, we find out that we can communicate a whole range of emotions just through eye contact – trust, hostility, aggressiveness, friendship, solidarity.” Therefore, drama is a universal language which uses universal codes understandable by everyone, he said.

Indeed, solidarity is a cornerstone of most of the exercises he used at the workshop for participants in the Theatre – Education – Art project. Just a couple of minutes after the start of the workshop, a group of strangers started playing games like a bunch of kids in a schoolyard.

Their smiles got warmer, the tension of the unknown fell away. By learning how to establish eye contact, they learned how to create an atmosphere of solidarity. By calling each other by the names of vegetables and animals they experienced how much fun it can be to learn new vocabulary. Before long, what initially looked like an educational process turned into a friendly exchange.

According to Clark, the feeling of human belonging is essential when learning a language because sometimes we need to communicate abstract, sophisticated and very conceptual things and we should learn to do it in a way that would be fair to other people.

“We have common ground somewhere and I believe that drama, dance, and music, the three performing arts, allow us to find this common ground and to start working from it on a shared basis,” Clark told The Slovak Spectator. “And then we can explore the diversity of cultures through language.”

To Clark, each language is a reflection of how one sees the world. A person's identity is reshaped when using another language.

“You have a different voice, a different expression, your breathing changes, your body changes, you are a different person,” he said. “If you deepen your command of a foreign language, it does transform you.”

Clark started exploring the connection between drama, language and identity when he, as an English teacher in Normandy, got a chance to work with artists within artistic workshops that were offered to schools in the mid 1980s. In the next ten years he continued teaching English through drama to kids from age 13 to 15 in a comprehensive school, doing a lot of exchanges with England and creating theatre performances in English that were then shown to both English and French audiences. Later he started training teachers of English and today he is a respected expert in his field in France.

“It’s like a bee collecting pollen and going here and there,” he said about the workshop he did in Bratislava. “The things you saw here I simply picked up in England, in America, Hong Kong, Africa, everywhere on my trips. And without the people, the friends, the artists and teachers, those committed people, I would never have been able to work out this method.”

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