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….


International Mother Language Day

Did you know that the United Nations celebrates International Mother Language Day every year on February 21st?

Collected a few clips of students using their own language to say ”  ___ is my mother language” as part of an event that will take place later during reading week.

DIY tools: language flashcards in a digital frame

The bulk of my language ‘study’ these days is listening to podcasts and other audio materials during my commute to and from work.  That’s pretty much been my pattern for the last couple of years– it works for me, but I’ve had a nagging feeling that I could/should be doing more work on reading and writing.

On my last HSK test, my suspicions were concerned— my listening section score was much much higher than the writing score.  Thinking about what I could do that wouldn’t take up tons of time (having a three year-old in the house means different priorities!), I hatched an idea.

I remembered that, awhile back, my mother had given us a couple of old digital photo frames– you know, the ones you can plug in and they will cycle through any images that you have on a USB key?  They weren’t the latest and greatest crystal-clear version of the technology, “but they were on clearance, and maybe we could use them to entertain [her grandson]?”  Because I’m still trying to keep him away from electrical cords, I didn’t really put the frames to use until a few weeks ago when the idea struck me to put one of them on my desk at work and make jpg flashcards of Chinese characters/phrases that I wanted to better remember.

The concept is pretty simple— use a free graphics editor like Paintbrush to type up two versions of an image, one with just the Chinese characters and the other with any pinyin or English comments that I wanted to add.   Naming them with sequential filenames ensures that they come up in order on the picture frame on my desk.  It’s not like I stare at it for hours, but every once in a while, a word will catch my eye and I’ll get reminded again about the strokes that make up that particular character.

When I’m reading something that contains an expression that seems worth remembering, I quickly open up paintbrush and make a white background flashcard.   Dumping it into a folder, I’m free to update my USB key whenever the inspiration hits.

When it comes to using flashcards, there are lots of folks talking about spaced repetition— sites like BYKI and Anki are good places to start if you want to give it a try.   I like the concept, but my ‘passive’ picture-frame cards are much more my speed these days.     This way I can keep some ‘word souvenirs’ from things I read and the review process weaves its way into my day.

Le départ de Stéphane Guillon: one of my French teachers got fired…

The other day I made a list of French podcasts that I have on my ipod, but it appears that Stéphane Guillon’s two year stint on France Inter has come to a close.  Pity!  In making a statement on the situation, Radio France boss Jean-Luc Hees declared that “L’humour ne doit pas être confisqué par de petits tyrans.” and gave Guillon the boot.

I’ll leave politics to the pundits, but it really has been fun listening to his morning slots.  One favourite that comes to mind was his recap of the Clearstream Affair, comparing the whole scenario to a TV series that you never really want to come to an end “and I never missed an episode”(see video below).

Something about his humour reminded me of old Monty Python sketches that were off-colour enough that you couldn’t share with some of your friends, yet you still couldn’t deny some the comedic genius in the delivery.

With his flair, gift for story-telling and spot-on impersonations of so many different French speaking styles, these skits are a superb language learning resource– my only wish was that I could read his speaking notes!  If someone ever puts together a DVD + Book box-set of Mr. Guillon’s time at France Inter, I will definitely pick up a copy!

video link:

DELF listening practice: French Podcasts

If you’re looking for French podcasts to throw on your ipod, try a few of these.   I have a number of different podcasts all organized into a smart playlist on my ipod– it all sort of flows together like a multilingual radio station….   Of special note is the United Nations podcast– if you need to follow up with something, often times you’ll find a transcript of their stories at the UN Radio site.

France Inter – L’humeur de Stéphane Guillon
[edit] **Guillon was fired by the station, so the audio archive is gone, but you can still watch lots of his videos here.

Un livre sous le bras [itunes link]
Radio des Nations Unies en français [itunes link]
RTL :  Z comme Zemmour  [itunes link]
RTL : Les livres ont la parole [itunes link

Why not simply browse the podcast directory?

Don’t forget that  you can click on the “Change Country” link at the bottom of the podcast page in itunes—if you select France then why not try out some random ‘picks’ from categories that appeal to you?     If sports is your thing in English, then you should definitely be looking to French sportscasters as an *ideal* learning resource.


A textbook to prepare for DELF B2?

cover of Hachette

With the hope of saving a few pennies, I scoured the Edmonton-area public and university libraries in search of DELF preparation/teaching materials–alas, I couldn’t find anything that held much promise.   Before rushing out to spend my hard-earned money on the first book I bumped into, I thought it would be worth it to check in with a friend in France who is somewhat familiar with the publishing industry– perhaps she could recommend something?

True to her style, she responded with a ‘to-the-point’ four word message: ” Of course Hachette FLE”, and included a link to the book cover you see here.

After poking around their website, I called one of their North American distributors in Montréal (Librairie MICHEL FORTIN) to place my order.

I have to be honest, when given the choice, I called the English number—I know, lame, eh? However, when the guy answered the phone in French it felt like the universe was calling my bluff, almost as if to say “You’re serious about improving your French and you can’t even muster the courage to call a bookstore in French?  BOOOOOO”.

So, in the end, I stuck it out in French—I’ll save my rant for another day, but I really do think that fighting *that moment* and resisting the urge to slip back into English is more than half the battle of learning another language.  If I needed to, I probably could have switched to English at any point in that conversation, but the guy on the phone stuck with me until I completed my order (can’t imagine how it would have felt if he had taken pity on me and switched to English).

As I hung up the phone, I thought about all the things that could have gone wrong— did I get my credit card number right?  What about my address and phone number?  Heck, did I even ask for the right book?    When the book finally arrived in the mail the other day, it really was a treat on many levels.

I can’t give any thoughts on the content of the book yet, but when I’m done, I’ll likely donate the book to the Edmonton Public Library so someone else can make use of it.

A nous le podium– Canadians finish 2010 Winter Olympics in style

Just finished watching Canada win gold in men’s hockey– what a game!

I understand that with 14 trips to the top of the podium by Canadian athletes during the Vancouver games, Canada now holds the record for the most gold medals during a single Winter Olympics. While they didn’t make their goal of winning the medal count, I’m sure the Canadian Olympic Committee is pleased with the results of the “Own the Podium” campaign (“A nous le podium” in French).

Gold medal vocab card

金牌 金メダル Médaille d'or

Passed DELF B2— “Merci” to my sponsors!

Well, the results are in and I’ve officially passed the DELF B2. For an idea of what that means for my French, here is what CIEP (Centre international d’études pédagogiques) has to say about this level:

A B2 user has a degree of independence that allows him/her to construct arguments to defend his/her opinion, explain his/her viewpoint and negotiate. At this level, the candidate has a degree of fluency and spontaneity in regular interactions and is capable of correcting his/her own mistakes.

Having said that, most of my initial reactions from the test were right on the mark; although I passed the level, my score wasn’t anything worth bragging about. From this point, I plan to regroup and challenge B2 again at some point in the future.

The happiest news is that my Linguathon idea raised about $200. Thanks again to all of my sponsors, your donation is going to a good cause! I wrote a simple “Post Exam Report” which can be found here.

As you know, language learning is something that I’m quite passionate about. If someone in your family or circle of friends aspires to some degree of competency in another language, please encourage them to keep at it. Contrary to popular belief, Albertans have a wealth of language learning opportunities and resources right here at home– there’s simply no need to move across the world for the sole purpose of welcoming another language into your life!

Thoughts on DELF B2

Thanks to everyone who sponsored me in my personal Linguathon.  As promised, I wrote the B2 level of the DELF French examination last week.  I imagine that it will take some time before I receive my actual score, but I thought I could post a simple summary of the structure of the test and how I thought it went.

At the outset, I should note that the pass/fail line, or  “Seuil de réussite pour obtenir le diplôme”, is 50%.  Having said that, one must obtain a score of at least 20% in each of the areas listed below to receive the diploma.    This is quite similar to most standard language tests that I’ve seen, including English ones.  One notable exception is the highest level of the Japanese proficiency exam, which requires that you obtain a mark of 70% in order to pass(!)

With that cleared up, here is a summary of what the DELF B2 test takes you through over the space of a few hours (immediate reactions in green, more comments below):

[edit: this is one of the most popular posts on this blog– many people have found this post while preparing for DELF B2 and have asked follow-up questions in the comments section below]

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