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.

4 techniques for switching your brain into language mode

Have you ever heard of a phenomenon called "Priming"? Priming is what psychologists call it when your brain adapts to the environment around it without you realising. For example, you might automatically walk slower in a nursing home than you do in a gym. The brain helps your body to adjust, and this also affects your memory and even your confidence and the whole way you interpret situations.

Priming in language learning

Recently, the concept of this environment idea has been in the news from one angle, called "Thinking of home makes it harder to learn a language".  It's a cool piece of science, and definitely another argument to get your cork boards out or browse the internet for flights to Switzerland, Mexico or Moscow.

© morethanmaths  on Flickr

©morethanmaths on Flickr

Here's how priming can work against you

I teach many people in their lunch hour and often experience that those students are more hesitant to go ahead and talk. Having thought about the learning environment and what it means for your performance, I came to the conclusion that these students need to make a switch from work mode to learning mode.

It's not easy, because many people who work in management or office-based roles are in an environment that looks a bit like school, but demands a completely different behaviour. Professionals don't just go out and try things. They are expected to control their creativity and maintain a professional image at all times. When you think about the good mindset for language learners, it's a contrast: You'll do well if you can combine curiosity, discipline and a complete disregard for embarrassment!


Make your language learning happy place

Now, how can we make our brains help us with what we're learning? Try out some ideas that learners and teachers can use to make priming work in the right way:

1. Listen to target language songs and watch some movies

I will not promise you that watching an awful lot of films in a foreign language will magically beam fluency into your mind. To be honest, that would be immersion misunderstood. The real benefit of surrounding yourself with the target language is that you stay engaged with it and develop knowledge of the country. In terms of the priming benefit, it will work magic. Plus, you get to do it while putting your feet up or driving.

2. Relax before speaking

Schedule your learning sessions for the right times. For example, I like doing my chatting in Spanish on the drive back from Zumba - partly because the Spanish lady is captive in my car, partly because we've just spent an hour having fun and dancing around. Others also swear by having a nice glass of wine to relax or using breathing exercises.

Another great tip is to create a learning corner in your home - somewhere quiet, free from distractions and full of positive associations. 


3. Visualise success

School classroom teachers have known for a long time that putting up posters and displays around the classroom can get pupils in the right state of mind for learning. They don't have to be written in the foreign language, but just reminders of what's great about the country you're learning about. Take a tip from this and create your own language learning displays full of things that interest you about your language. They could be recipes, tickets from old trips, tourist brochures or printouts from the internet. I particularly love vintage posters.

You can find more inspiration on my Pinterest boards for German, French and Russian

4. Warm up

In my teaching role, I try to start my lessons off easily with some smaller warm-up activities like asking students how they are or offering them a drink. Recently, I received the great tip that using the same warm-up activity every time for regular students is actually helpful - here I was worrying people would get bored, but the learner's perspective was that knowing "what's coming" allowed them to prepare and feel confident at the start of the lesson. That puts every learner in the right state of mind for success.

Does your tutor or group class do the same? I'd love to hear about your favourite warm up.

As always, I would love to know your thoughts and favourite tricks - and sign up for more if you enjoyed this post!