French Gestures (A.I.M.) and Li Yang’s Crazy English: building confidence for beginners

At the outset, I need to say that I am a *huge* fan of the Edmonton Public Library.  For the most part, my EPL use is limited to requesting holds online and picking them up at the branch near my office.  A couple of days ago, however, I tried something different and attended a free event at the Capilano EPL Branch.  The name of the session was “Learning French with Gestures”—as a card-carrying language geek, how could I possibly resist?

The session was basically an introduction to a way of teaching French to beginners called the Accelerative Integrated Method (AIM).  The core of the program concentrates on using a system of pared-down language, accompanied by specific gestures for about 700 key words.   Our introductory session was facilitated by an Edmonton Public School FSL teacher and one of the EPL’s community librarians.

The participants were a mix of adults, children and a few school teachers.  After the session, we were given a sample DVD that shared the background of the AIM/gesture method, as well as a few testimonials.  Most of the video material appears to be available online (start with the video below and work from there…)

I really enjoyed the session– it’s not hard to see why this method would work for engaging beginning students.  As much as I loved my high school French teacher’s classes, I think this would have been right up my alley when I was originally starting to learn French.  The facilitator mentioned that a similar system of gestures is being developed for ESL and Spanish as a second language as well.

As we progressed through the session, one thought that came to mind was how gestures are also a part of how Li Yang teaches English in China.  For the uninitiated, “Crazy English” is a phenomenon that most young people in China have at least heard of— Li Yang encourages learners to read out loud (very loudly) as much as possible, and the pronunciation gestures are a way to aid students in mastering English vowel sounds not commonly found in Chinese.

Confidence as a critical base to early success

Overall, however, one of the key aspirations of Li Yang’s Crazy English is *very* similar to the AIM method, and that is to instill confidence in beginners.   If you listen to the kinds of things that Li Yang says in his public lectures, it’s fascinating how he blends the virtues of being a so-called “internationalist” with a strong sense of Chinese patriotism. In the video below, a good chunk of his Chinese ‘banter’ between English phrases is aimed at encouraging learners and playing down the anxiety that some learners might feel when speaking with native speakers of English.

Regardless of how you spin it, I think that there’s an argument to be made that the biggest challenge in beginning any new language is not memorizing all the new rules, but that the exercise puts us completely out of our zones of comfort, and it becomes easy to shut down and mentally ‘check out’ of class time.  Any tool that can keep the energy level up, and keep people communicating with smiles on their faces is a good one in my books— much more valuable than ‘clear grammar explanations’ is the caring, encouraging and inspiring teacher that can help create a safe environment where  students can step out of their shells.

I would even go so far as to argue that the key difference between a beginner and a low-intermediate speaker of a second language has less to do with comprehension and production, than it does with the person’s comfort level in the ‘skin’ of their new language.  Once that is done, then most folks are well on their way to entering the long-haul of self-directed language learning through the intermediate to advanced stages….


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