Twenty years ago, when Jan, the Polish sandwich boy, visited my PR office in Canary Wharf neither he nor I had any idea of how our brief exchanges would sow the seeds for the Spanish language courses I run in the Pyrenees today. It all started as he handed me a ham and pickle sandwich and chatted enthusiastically, albeit in broken English, about his life in Poland and his experiences selling sandwiches on the streets of London. During these lunch breaks my resolution firmed and, within 3 months of starting my once-in-a-life time job for an international PR company, I had given in my notice and was running around a small English school in Mayfair with Japanese executives – a pair of worn male slippers in one hand and the script of an Alan Ayckbourn play in the other. I had made up my mind to work within the world of language and culture – and have steered that course ever since.
It was at this Mayfair language school that I first learned about Georgi Lozanov´s teaching techniques of Suggestopedia which made total sense of my experiences as a language teacher and as a conversationalist with Polish sandwich boys in my time off. In retrospect these brief conversations with Jan encapsulated much of Lozanov’s thinking. Munching on my ham and pickle sandwich and cupping a warm mug of coffee in my hand I listened eagerly to Jan’s descriptions of Polish life – welcoming a few minutes off from the soulless marketing of high fashion brands. Jan seemed equally eager to talk and chatted away animatedly, in faltering English, evidently moved by the fact that someone was more interested in him than the range of sandwiches he had to offer.
Learning Spanish with the senses – Spanish that makes sense.
Lozanov´s theories on the teaching of a foreign language outline the importance of engaging the whole range of a person’s senses in the teaching process – not only the traditional senses of sight, sound, smell and touch but also those of movement and emotion (etymologically not unrelated). Lozanov goes on to advocate the importance of establishing a happy, friendly and non-threatening environment where teachers take the role of fun, and empathic (but not necessarily infallible) facilitators who show a genuine interest in their students. In retrospect, thinking of my own experiences learning languages in many different countries, I can not think of a more motivating factor in the learning of a language than the simple but powerful desire to communicate with other people.
The desire to show our Spanish hosts how much we enjoy the paella they have made for us ….. to tell friends from San Sebastian of the tapas bars we have visited in their city … to learn about the Basque culture from the elderly farmers next door …. to share our experiences of motherhood with other mothers in the square … to communicate our personality, our humour, our thoughts and sensitivities. In short that human and overwhelming desire to build bridges between one person and the next!
It wasn’t a surprise to me when I came across the experiments of Patricia K. Kuhl, Feng-Ming Tsao and Huei-Mei Liu (2003) on the effects of Foreign Language Experience in Infancy (in this case Mandarin). In their experiments on 9 month old infants they found that the infants acquired a sensitivity to Mandarin if words were imparted by a real person but acquired none if the same words were emitted by a DVD, hence implying that – in infants at least – human presence and social contact is an essential prerequisite for the learning of a second language. To all those language learners who have struggled with DVD’s and language labs doesn’t this make sense? *
As I sit here planning our walking and Spanish language house parties this summer, preparing the house and organising foresters and musicians, lawyers and smugglers to join in the fun, I wonder what has happened to sandwich man Jan? I knew him superficially for a couple of months and it seems so odd that 20 years later I am dedicating this blog to him. But that, of course, is the wonder of serendipitous moments that can change the course of our lives – and surely, the more languages we speak, the more people we meet, the more of these serendipitous meetings are out there waiting.
Experiment on second language learning in infants.* http://www.pnas.org/content/100/15/9096.long#sec-2