Total Physical Response

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Have you ever signed up for language course, only to find yourself dreading each and every class? Did you find that you soon quit, mostly because you didn’t want the extra stress?

The traditional approach to second language acquisition can be very ‘text heavy’, where the student memorizes set pieces of language, often related to travel, study abroad, or showing foreign visitors around town – then must stand and deliver those phrases when called upon in class. The problem with this method is that, not only is it very stressful to produce memorized answers with little context, but also that students are very unlikely to encounter the exact same situations presented in these dialogues. Even if they do, they will probably find they can’t select and produce the correct responses quickly enough to keep the conversation going.

An even worse approach is often used when teaching children, where there’s no context whatsoever, and a student is rewarded (or not) for simply repeating sounds upon demand – sounds which basically mean nothing at all to the child. I’ve heard of instructors using whistles, bells, and buzzers in this style of ‘teaching’ language, with children as young as only a few months old – as if training one of Pavlov’s dogs! I can’t imagine a more stressful, less productive environment for developing language.

So – how can we learn a new language quickly, and without stressing out?

James Asher, a professor emeritus of psychology at San José State University, has shown that by far the most effective – and stress-free method – coordinates the acquisition of language with physical movement. In observing interactions between young children and their parents, he noted that the initial evidence of language comprehension is often physical, rather than verbal. In other words, parents give instructions or ask questions, and children often respond by doing rather than speaking. They show that they understand by completing simple tasks. Speaking follows once the child has built up confidence in this way.

Asher’s observations led to a method of language learning known as Total Physical Response (TPR). There are three important aspects of this method that, taken together, make for a highly effective approach to gaining fluency in a new language.

First is the understanding that the brain is hard-wired to acquire language through listening – not through reading, memorizing, or repetition. Not only is this obvious to anyone who has had some success at learning a new language, but it is well-supported by studies using the most recent technology allowing us to peer into the inner workings of the brain. Most of us who speak more than one language can hear and understand considerably more than we can produce – that’s simply how our brains work.

Second, the view that language is abstract – and therefore related to left-brain learning – is incorrect. It is instead the right hemisphere of the brain, in charge of concrete learning, that must be engaged in order for new vocabulary and grammar to be acquired, especially at the beginner to intermediate levels. This is probably related to the fact that when language was first produced by us as a species, its function would have been related to survival rather than self-expression. Asher says that left-brain learning should actually be discouraged at the early stages of learning.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, learning a new language cannot be associated with stress of any kind. This is the major drawback of most approaches to language – the negative emotions associated with learning slow down the process. Repetitive drills, meaningless dialogues, and the fear of failing to understand or answer a question all contribute reduce language retention.

So – language class stressing you out? Quit it! Find one that uses an enjoyable, stress-free approach. Is your child struggling to progress in English or Mandarin? Come visit us at Kingsgate, and we’ll be more than happy to introduce you to our positive, play-based approach towards language success.

Director of Education, Don Henson

Don has spent the last 20 years working in international education, acquiring a wealth of knowledge and expertise in the process. He began his career as an ESL/Academic English instructor, quickly moving into areas of leadership in that field and others. Over the years, he has served in a variety of capacities, including: Corporate Department Head for the largest private instructional provider in Thailand; Director of Studies for joint-educational ventures between Australian and Chinese universities; Center Director for university language programs in the US; and Education Manager for the leading Business English provider in South Korea.

As a certified examiner for both IELTS and TOEFL exams, Don possesses expert skills in the areas of student testing and placement. In addition, he has a proven track record of providing high-quality teacher training through his many presentations, workshops, and one-to-one mentoring. He still enjoys his first love – teaching – whenever time permits.