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What is it like to learn a language for the first time? – The week I learnt Farsi

Learning a new language is an incredibly rewarding experience but it is also one that can be very overwhelming for new learners. Here at TEFL Madrid Academy, our TEFL students are exposed to an unknown foreign language as part of their training course. We believe that this is an important method to help trainees in four main areas; to appreciate the problems encountered by language learners at low levels when no use of L1 (their native language) is possible, to underline many of the principles that underpin a communicative approach to teaching, to allow trainees to form their own opinions as to the value of particular teaching strategies through personal experience and finally, to allow our trainees to assess what they as learners consider to be of importance within the ESL classroom.

I decided to go undercover and reflect on my own experiences! Before these lessons I had no prior knowledge of the Persian language nor what to expect. So what is it? Persian (locally called Farsi or Parsi) is spoken by 110 million persian speakers worldwide and is the principal language spoken in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Lesson 1 – 2 hours

Walking into class,my first thoughts were centred around questions such as; am i going to be able to learn this? What if i get something wrong? I am half filled with excitement and half nervous in anticipation for my full immersion into the language. I won’t bore you with a complete lesson plan or a real time account of the lesson, but i will mention the following useful insights that I found as a learner facing a language for the very first time. So, in no particular order:

The importance of a rapport between teacher and learners

Upon arrival into the classroom my confidence was boosted immediately by the presence of a professional, calm and friendly teacher that made the environment a sanctuary in which to learn. Learners felt at ease from the very start. I was made to feel that it was acceptable to make a mistakes as this is entirely part of the process when learning a language for the first time. We were encouraged to learn from mistakes and not to be afraid to get involved, even if it means saying things wrong! During the introductory lesson, handshakes and pleasantries were repeated frequently to learn the vocabulary and it further strengthened the rapport we had together. Our teacher gave plenty of eye contact and worked with each student for the same amount of time.

The importance of the clarity of the teacher’s methods of conveying meaning and instruction

As we were elementary level learners with no knowledge of the language, we were dependent on other means to convey meaning or understand instructions. The use of hand gestures and mine were an excellent tool to demonstrate the intention of the language. Gestures allowed students to make common and universal links with instructions. The use of props were also used to learn. This was another invaluable method of learning through association. Pinning words to actions.

Clear methods of giving instructions were vital

The teacher’s patience was appreciated by all students when they spoke slowly and clearly. Using an encouraging tone and repeating instructions many times were a great benefit. Information and requests were teased out of the students and built on their competence and speed, grading language to the ability of the student. Longer sentences and words such as “It’s nice to meet you”, were chunked up and repeated small sections to make it more manageable for the students. This made it easier to understand.

Subtle but effective methods of error correction

Correction methods were subtle and effective. At such an early stage of learning a language, building confidence is vital. If you start to correct every mistake, how might that make the learner feel? Error correction is important so the techniques used need to be subtle but effective. For example when counting, I was saying the wrong pronunciation for “one” (I know, great start huh!) when counting with the group. To correct this mistake the teacher changed the order of counting and placed themselves as number one. Then, repeated the word with greater emphasis to clarify the correct term. The teacher also scaffolded ideas and gave clues to the word or sentences by starting them for us. They later handed over more of the responsibility to us students by encouraging them to correct one another where they spotted an error. Drilling was also an effective method of ensuring mistakes were corrected and this was both choral and individual.

The most memorable moment about the teaching experienced?

The most memorable experience was free and independent practice of the Farsi learnt. It was a very clear method to demonstrate how much progress had been made and a way to strengthen our understanding on our few words and phrases we knew. This communicative approach helped to build conversational skills and made it applicable to an everyday life situation. I really enjoyed how there was a great deal of repetition and feedback. From approaching an entirely new language, I found this an incredibly useful way to retain the language. Repetition of words and phrases allowed me to understand the pronunciation of the words and where to stress them.

Techniques you or other learners have used to help remember language

I found that finding words that sounded like objects or people could allow me to remember the words. Applying a story or particular scenarios to the words or phrases made them much easier to recall. This has made me realise and understand the importance of providing a scenario or story to introduce new topics. When learning countries the teacher also handed each learner a sample of flags for each person to use in the role play. This made remembering the words much easier as each learner was able to rehearse over and over a select amount of vocabulary.

In summary, few common links could be found from my native L1 language and the new L2 language I was learning. It was the quality of the learning environment, verbal prompts, body gestures, visual aids, pace, repetition and drilling of new phrases and vocabulary that helped me to learn most effectively. 

Exam Madrid Team
Exam Madrid Team
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