Want to be Bilingual? Get Emotional

November 6, 2013

Be Bilingual children

I was 20 years old in Buenos Aires checking in for a flight with my family for our return trip to the United States. The airline had e-mailed us and told us that our flight had changed, so there we were ready to check in for newly assigned flight. However, the airline agent’s system was still saying that we were booked for the original flight. So he said in Spanish, “You can change to this new flight but it’s going to cost $250 USD per person.” There were 5 of us. Clearly there was a misunderstanding, and the only resource I had was all the high school and college Spanish that I had taken. 

As I translated back to my dad what the agent had said, I felt the intense unspoken pressure from my notoriously spend thrift father bare through me. “Fix this” was the message I was getting. As the emotional pressure mounted, I suddenly said confidently in near perfect Spanish: “Nosotros no cambiamos los boletos – Uds. nos cambiaron el vuelo a nosotros. - We didn’t change our tickets. You guys changed our flight.” My accent was the best it had ever been; my grammar right on target. I even got the verb tense right. My Argentine friends standing near looked at me in disbelief. “We didn’t know you could speak Spanish like that”, they told me. Neither had I. 

While there had been some benefit to the years of book work and Spanish classes that I completed, nothing catapulted my language abilities further than being in a real experience where the language I used mattered. If I could do it all over again, I would have found a way to place myself in more of those experiences sooner. I would have achieved fluency much faster – like years faster. Since I can’t go back in time, however, I can only work to provide those immersion based experiences my Academy students now. 

As I headed up the curriculum design team for the Language Academy that I co-founded, I knew one thing had to be the core of the curriculum – real experiences where the students used language for real reasons. So, when we take our students to Sea World – they don’t just have a great time seeing animals and learning a few new vocabulary words – then have to plan a schedule with their team and map out what shows they’ll see and when. They have to communicate with each other the direction they need to go to in the park. They may even have to ask an attendant for information. The emotion attached to this is excitement. 

Our brain uses feelings to retain information and learn. We can always recall how we felt in past situations more than exact words that were said. In language learning, we can leverage this emotional brain power to attach our language practice to emotional situations – fun, excitement, nervousness, joy, love, friendship are all catalyst for language growth.

So, if you are an ESL teacher, explore how you can adapt your lessons to trigger an emotional connection to the target language, if you are a parent desiring fluency for your child, find a program that focuses on experience based learning (shameless plug – The D’Angon Academy!), and if you are self-teaching a new language – push yourself into situations where you’ll need to use the language to get something desired.

It’s the experiences and the emotion that push our language skills ahead.

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