Meet our Writers

Back in 2012, I sat in my little kitchen and decided to post a few articles about language learning on my blog. I had had enough of the people telling me they are too old to learn a language, or that it is impossible to become fluent in a new language if you don't live in the target country. And I wanted to share my love and experience of learning English, French, Spanish, Italian and Latin. That was that. Fluent, the Language Learning Blog.

Ricky, Marta, Angel and Sally Join Me In Writing Here At Fluent

Ladies and gentlemen, I am excited to tell you that we're entering a new age of the blog. A whole team of new writers has joined Fluent and will contribute articles about language learning. They are writing from all around the globe and will share opinions, reviews and tips from their own experiences.

You can get to know the whole team on my new Author page.

Why not say hello to the new writers on here or on Twitter?

The Special Needs Child and the Foreign Language (by Sally Holmwood)

Sally Holmwood, tutor at Indigo Languages is establishing herself as a regular and always very welcome guest here on the Fluent Language blog. Her experiences working with young people of all ages, both inside and outside the UK school system make her views so profound, and Sally has a real passion for her languages to share with you. Today she is discussing a special group of people, often forgotten in the language learning world: Special needs children.

One Tongue, Two Languages

As well as working with languages, I support individuals with special needs in a wide range of settings. There is a wealth of information, on the internet and beyond, about teaching languages to children with special needs – and plenty of resistance from parents and school staff alike!

special needs learners.jpg

“My Child Struggles to Communicate in English - Why Teach Them a Foreign Language?”

Many parents I know of children with severe learning difficulties would argue against teaching a foreign language to a child that experiences considerable difficulty in speaking their own. I know two mothers of non-verbal autistic boys, for example. For the mothers, English is not their native tongue. They live in England and so speak to their sons in English. They believe that, as their children hear English all day, wherever they go, it might confuse them to hear a different language spoken at home. Such apprehension about introducing a child with a learning difficulty to a foreign language is not uncommon. Some parents and staff believing pupils’ time might be better spent focussing on building independence skills.

Using Language-Learning as a Stepping Stone

At Languages Without Limits, the rationale that we are all different is reason enough to introduce pupils with special needs to a foreign language. Seeing the variation between people from different cultures showed pupils that it is acceptable to be ‘different’. There is scope for revisiting useful basic language concepts when learning a foreign language too. The teaching of social and other core skills can be integrated into foreign language lessons, shifting the focus just slightly. (Read this twice because it applies to all learners, not just special needs ones. -ed.)

“But This Child Can’t Speak!”

We may believe the non-verbal child does not benefit from learning a foreign language - but can we really be sure? If you haven’t heard of Carly Fleischmann, the Canadian teenager with non-verbal autism, now’s the time to look her up! Watch her video below to see for yourself the stark contrast between her father’s assumptions about her understanding and what she herself wants to communicate! Carly, like many other non-verbal youngsters, now has an electronic communication aid – many of these can even be furnished with foreign language software!

David R. Wilson has compiled a list of resources that include guidelines on making foreign languages accessible to pupils with a number of special needs, who may need to learn in a different way to their peers.

A Time and Place for Everything – Including Traditional Teaching Methods!

Rudyard Kipling once said

The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it!

We know that there are three learning styles – visual, auditory and kinesthetic (tactile) – and certainly some pupils with special needs learn better if they can ‘get stuck in’. Videos, games and songs and plenty of opportunity to get up out of their seat to act things out will enhance their learning experience – the more tactile, the better!

Take fruit. Teach the names – and even the signs – not just by showing a simple photograph or cartoon image as a visual aid. Embrace the wonder that is ICT. Even better still, bring actual pieces of fruit in for pupils to try and allow them to feel, smell and taste it. Make the most of stories like Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" – just think how this could be used to combine simple vocabulary with a brilliantly multi-sensory experience for children with special needs!

The Higher Functioning Special Needs Child

Let’s not forget the high functioning autistic learner either, who, like any of us, is highly motivated by things they really like. It may be the rigidity of maths or science that appeals. To others, like one young man I know, it is foreign languages. Excelling in school at French and German, he taught himself Russian at home. Foreign languages come complete with strict, non-negotiable grammar rules and a clear right or wrong answer for many questions. This can play to the high-functioning autistic pupil’s thirst for rigidity of routine. They may find such things easier to grasp than confusing abstract concepts found in other subjects.

Is the Special Needs Child the Better Language Learner?

We know that the pupil with special needs learns in a very different way to one without. We may have concerns that a child with special needs may not understand a foreign language, particularly if they are non-verbal, but that shouldn’t mean we exclude them altogether from the opportunity to learn. After all, Carly Fleischmann showed the world just how wrong people could be about the level of understanding of a non-verbal child.

The question of whether the special needs child makes the better language learner is a tricky one that brings me back to the diversity of all pupils, so much so that I am inclined to sit on the fence and say simply that we are all motivated by the things that interest us! We all deserve to be offered the same experiences and to receive support, where necessary, to make the most of them.

Learn One, Learn All!

The language learner with special needs may need to approach language learning in a completely different manner. Yet amongst the vast technologies that exist today, there are certainly many ways in which to offer them an experience of learning a foreign language that is meaningful to them. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves from now on is not simply whether individuals with special needs should learn a foreign language, but rather how they should be doing so?

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: SherlockBonesThe Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who. Stay in touch with Sally on Twitter or Facebook.

**Note from Kerstin : Like Sally, I also believe very strongly that language learning should be open to everyone who wishes to do so. This is not an easy path for anyone, and her ideas of the learner with autism finding comfort in rigid grammar rules, or the tactile learning styles, should be an inspiration to us all. How do you bring more adventure into your learning styles?** 


Guest Post: It's language, Jim, but not as we know it

Welcome to a particularly exciting week for millions of young people here in the UK. It's A-Level results week! The rush for university places UCAS Clearing season is on and everyone's focusing on exams. In this week, we'll have a couple of guest posts from experts, starting with tutor Sally Holmwood. In this article, she revisits what it is that we are learning for: exams or life?

International Readers: A-Levels are the UK's school leaving exams at 18, and GCSE are the ones at about 16. They love exams in this country.

It’s Language, Jim, But Not As We Know It!

The things you leave school knowing – some dates and long division – so much of it has been of no use to me. Schools should teach the basics of cookery, first aid, how to look after your money and how to speak foreign languages – useful things.
— Jane Asher, actress

Jane Asher is right – languages are useful. Yet, as one BBC article illustrates, for some time there was a worrying decline in their take-up amongst pupils at GCSE. Another article written since then reports a change for the better. But the question remains: What could be dampening young people’s enthusiasm for learning languages? 

Lingo show picture ©bbc, exam pic © albertogp123  on Flickr

Lingo show picture ©bbc, exam pic ©albertogp123 on Flickr

Live, Love, Learn…

I think back fondly to my experience of learning languages at school as a time of great discovery. I went on excursions to Dieppe and the Moselle Valley (editor's note: hey look that's where I am from!) and took part in exchanges (like those you read about in my previous guest post). I was actively encouraged to venture beyond the confines of the language syllabus and spent time reading books and magazines and listening to German radio stations at home. The more opportunities I had to explore and to take control of my own learning, the more enthusiastic I became about languages.

Once a week, we had a conversation class with a native speaker.  There was an obligation to practise certain things in those lessons but spontaneity/fluidity of general conversation was important too. 

Conversation Killer?

Remembering those classes, when I began work as a private tutor myself, I did not hesitate to lead into lessons with a few minutes’ general conversation in the target language. The first lesson after a school holiday was the perfect opportunity to practise a variety of tenses and grammatical constructions with questions to engage my pupils. Following one half-term holiday, I began a general conversation with one of my pupils. “Was hast du letzte Woche gemacht? Wie war das Wetter? Was hast du am Liebsten gemacht? Was willst du während den nächsten Schulferien gern machen?”  

At first they looked confused. Then they thrust a piece of paper towards me in indignation: “I have not learnt those questions – I have learned these questions.” Once upon a time, even pupils who were less confident might have bravely attempted to answer such spontaneous questions. These days, however, the approach to modern language learning seems far more (painfully) formulaic.

Testing Times!

Many of my younger friends sat their GCSEs last year, studying hard until the bitter end and earning grades to be proud of! Yet some say that, even after years of learning a language, they still feel barely able to string sentences together in spontaneous foreign conversation! However, the paragraphs they had memorised in response to the set oral questions remain etched on their brains…

I do love the way that children’s television is embracing foreign languages with shows like the carefully researched “The Lingo Show” for its younger viewers. It is a great way to inspire young children to learn. As those youngsters move up through the education system, the pressure will be on their teachers not just to hit targets and climb league tables but to keep pupils’ interest in learning foreign languages alive! 

Less isn’t always more

If given more opportunities to engage in general conversation and to respond to general questions, rather than listening out for rote clues to rote answers, pupils will start to feel happier and more confident to use the languages that they are learning. They will get more enjoyment out of using those languages and feel inspired and motivated to continue learning them. 

Next time you come to practise your language skills, consider your reasons for learning the language. Are you listening out for specific phrases so that you can give the one reply that you've learned for them? Or do you hope to take the language you have learned and be able to adapt it for use in real-life situations? For if you do, then perhaps it’s time to look for a more flexible approach to your language-learning..

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: SherlockBonesThe Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who.

You have GOT to follow Sally on Twitter or Facebook, she is fab! And don't forget to check out her tutoring services at Indigo Languages.


Guest Post: Safety first… sanity second?

 Today I'm very happy to be able to feature a guest post from fellow language tutor Sally Holmwood. I'm a German who was mad about Britain and English learning as a teenager, Sally is a Brit who's mad about German and Germany! Only good things can come from this. She's writing about the topic of foreign exchanges - find out how they changed her life!

Safety first...sanity second?

Brits have a worldwide reputation for being the kings of Health and Safety but this time they may have taken things a step too far! I recently came across articles by both the Daily Mail and BBC, explaining a Welsh Council’s decision to halt exchanges to foreign towns amid safety concerns.

Any adult knows that there is a risk involved in anything we do. It seems a great shame, however, to withdraw such a great opportunity from pupils without first exploring all possible avenues of making it the safest experience it could be.

The linguistic and motivational benefits of spending time in a native setting are crystal clear, as recent Fluent blog guest Mickey Mangan demonstrated so beautifully. And school exchanges have long contributed to making language learning greater for students from anywhere.

Impressions of Neheim, Germany  ©sally holmwood

Impressions of Neheim, Germany
©sally holmwood

Take my own story, for example…

At 12 years old, I wrote a letter in very basic German to be sent, along with those of my classmates, to a school in the Sauerland.  We’d only recently begun learning German and such interaction was seen as a valuable part of the learning experience. Our school had a long-standing link with the St. Ursula Gymnasium and ran a biannual exchange programme. A few years, and several letters, later and my pen-friend, who had initially chosen to write to me because I had a guinea pig, was standing infront of me with her family, ready to take me back to Germany for two weeks!

In the mid-90s, we had two 10 day stays at each others’ places, and I loved every minute. I was a mood board pioneer and glued all kinds of weird and wonderful mementoes into a diary – receipts, tickets and even chocolate wrappers found their way in, much to the amusement of my friends. We went on several guided tours, and I became so keen to hear and speak German that I asked my teacher to allow me to walk around with the German group!

Since those school days, I have been back to my “German home” of Neheim so often in the last 20 years that I now know my way around. In some of my favourite shops, assistants know me by name. I have fond memories of a Junggesellinnenabschied (hen night) with all its traditions and would urge any visitor to experience the town’s centuries-old Jägerfest celebration to experience local culture at its best. 

Exchanges are a challenge with huge benefits                 

Diversity Abroad, a leading US website dedicated to international mobility, cites so many benefits to taking part in an exchange programme of any description – increased self-confidence, maturity, improved problem-solving skills, and a greater understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses among them.

Removing yourself from your comfort zone and actively embracing an environment that boasts new traditions will inevitably be difficult and intensely challenging. But to be part of such an experience is incredibly character-building.  And there is, of course, the added bonus that you return home at the end of your stay with a host of new life-long foreign friends.

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: Sherlock, Bones, The Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who.

You have GOT to follow Sally on Twitter or Facebook, she is fab! And don't forget to check out her tutoring services at Indigo Languages.