Recently updated for summer 2018!
“Da-doo-da-da-da, dee-da-da-dee-da-da.” Is this: A) A lyric to Mungo Jerry’s classic “In the Summertime” or B) What language students hear in the first classes after summer vacation? Though Spanish, French or Chinese may sound like that to out-of practice students, the real answer is A. “In the Summertime” is one of my all-time favorite summer jams, though I’ll readily admit it’s short in meaning.
The real question underlying my silly one here is “How to turn strange syllables and summer brains back into something that has shape and makes sense?” I have acquired the habit of asking my students this question after every school vacation: “How many of you spoke Spanish over break?” The results are predictable, a few students were lucky enough to travel, others have Spanish-speaking family or friends, others listened to a few songs. Beyond that, there is little else. The students who answer the question “No” far outnumber those that answer “Yes.”
Why is this? I think the answer is equal parts freedom–“School’s out for the summer, man!”–and frustration–being told what what pages to peruse and which lists to learn. Trying to stem summer slide, and plying on the fact that our school has many talented musicians and athletes, I ask, “How many of you would go two months without practicing the [insert instrument here]? How many of you would go two months without going for a run or playing in a tournament?” I tell my students that language learning is like sports and music in one meaningful way: they are all about muscle memory and cerebral connections that come from constant contact and continuous practice. For reasons that frustrate me, students tend to get the music/sport side of it and miss the connection to language learning.
Still, we march onward. Here are seven ways that students can stem summer slide and come back to school not only in better shape linguistically but also with a better mindset about learning and using the language.
1) Follow a primary interest in the language of study. Whether it’s sports, pop culture, music, science or technology, there are ways to follow along. Students can follow interests via websites, podcasts, videos, magazines, etc. Following an established interest has two primary benefits. First, it’s less likely to be drudgery since it’s something the students enjoy. Second, and much more importantly, their understanding of the content will allow them to understand language more naturally and make connections more quickly.
2) READ! The single best way to improve vocabulary and overall comprehension is by reading. Similar to #1 above, this should not be drudgery. Harry Potter? Game of Thrones? Recaps of last night’s game? All of this is fantastic. Whether it’s literature or light reading, heady fiction or fantasy, all that matters is contact with the language.
3) Summer is movie season…make it language learning season too. Change the language settings on a DVD and voilà–a language lesson. In the same way a well-worn book is familiar and forgiving, a well-known movie provides plot prompts and other cues. Additionally, movies are full of commands and colloquial vocabulary–both essential for language learning. Feeling adventurous, find an art house cinema and get all the language and culture that a foreign language film offers.
4) Listening to music is an excellent ways to keep contact with the language. Find a song or artist they like and send them to Pandora to create a station. Everything we know innately about using and language tells us that music “makes it stick” in a way that spoken speech does not. Furthermore, research shows that learning music and learning language are similar immersive experiences full of multi-modal meaning. Go beyond just the song of the summer; make it the Spanish/Swedish/Swahili song of the summer.
5) Make it mobile! On the go, gamified language learning has gone global. Pick a language, make the time and results will follow. Working with apps like Duolingo and Memrise can do more than stem summer slide–it can set up whole new avenues for success. I’m currently catching up on episodes from Season 1 of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast.
6) I’ve written about Google Translate before. The updates make it both a very good tool–idioms and all–as well as an augmented reality platform. Students should explore on the go, snapping images, pronouncing new words and keeping an ever-growing personalized glossary.
7) All of the above exists in the virtual world one way or another. Students should also seek to make real-world, real-life connections. Find a friend, a sibling, a classmate, a neighbor, a co-worker, a cab driver and commit to speaking the language. The time-on-task will pay dividends and, more than anything, the effort will be rewarded. A student of mine shared this, which is as good an example as I could ever come up with: “I am currently in Portugal. My cab driver on the way back to my hotel tonight spoke Spanish (like most of the Portuguese population). After minutes of listening to him struggle with English, I threw him some Spanish to see if he understood. Excitedly, he responded, ‘Yo comprendo!’ We went on to discuss Portuguese architecture and history as in depth as I could. I even ended up having to give him directions to our hotel.”
Here’s to a restful summer and to rewarding experiences for language learners everywhere.