Part 1. How.
Explain that we are going to learn a new language, and that this means adjusting the way we think so we do things the way people who speak that language do them, and not the way we would do them. Some things are much the same, others different.
For further detail on any point, see the Primary Toolkits section of this site. These toolkits are equally suitable for the first year of secondary school. The examples are in French, but the approach works for other European languages.
Start with colours, using this ppt or your alternative. Download Fr colours Explain each variation in pronunciation from the English, and go round classroom pointing to things with the relevant colours, and having the children say them after you. With each colour, have the children look at the word carefully, then remove it from the screen and have them trace the word on their sleeve with their finger. Return the word. Who got it nearly right? If so, do you see what you need to do to get it exactly right? Who got it exactly right (almost all will have done so). Good. Draw attention once more to the features of the word that are different from English - especially the silent letters at the ends of words, most importantly t at the end of vert, a recurring feature of Fr, and one we meet in the second part of the lesson.
Ask them to discriminate between colours - eg, holding up a red pencil, Who thinks this is bleu? Who thinks it's rouge? Most of the differences in Fr and En pronunciation appear in the colours. A
Move to a simple sentence. The choice of the first sentence will depend on the main adjustments we need to make in moving to the new language, and it should build on the features introduced in colours. For French, the key point is that the French like their spoken language to flow, and their written language to be precise. They achieve flow by not pronouncing letters at the ends of words, and by knocking the vowel off short words when pronouncing it would cause a jerky sound as we move to the next. The first sentence I use, J'ai un chat, demonstrates both principles, and I present it, where possible, with Clicker 6. I explain the process of moving from Je ai (jerky) to J'ai (smooth) and note that t in chat is not pronounced. Children are soon able to trace this and write it independently. In the process, we remove the confusion between Je and J'ai that plagues some GCSE candidates.
Expand and extend in whatever direction you choose. The last time I introduced this, Cheryl, 10, said, "But I've got two cats". So, we added J'ai deux chats. This introduces the idea of silent letters for grammatical purposes, and the x after the u, commonly used to indicate a plural - châteaux.
Introduce positive and negative sentence structures as soon as possible. In French, the negative is tricky as it has to make a sandwich (Merci, Jo!) with ne and pas round the verb. In other European languages, it is much more simple. Giving children the choice between positive and negative responses forces them to think and make decisions, allowing us to present new material without parroting. Making lists of things they do and don't like, making displays from them and revisiting is a good start.
Once this simple framework is established, each new element of the language can be unpacked, explained, put together again and practised. The Primary Languages toolkits give a framework for the first few lessons, and the rest is up to the teacher. Resources should be as varied and attractive as possible. My translation of Pas Maintenant, Bernard, which children learn to read along with the teacher, gives excellent practice on pronunciation patterns as well as the negative, and introduces the past time zone. Download Not now Bernard powerpoint Zim Zam Zoum (1 and 2) provides entertaining exploration of simple French, as do the stories in Little Tails. The songs in Mon Ane are a delight.
The essential point is that every aspect of the language must be understood as well as enjoyed. The next section explains...
Why. (Part 2)
As we learn our first language, or mother tongue, networks of cells form in our brain, which research has now shown to be permanent. As we develop our language, first at home, and then in education, and develop the new skills of reading and writing, these networks become more complex and more efficient, transmitting and generating information through electrochemical processes that generate, and are driven by, currents estimated by Professor John Stein at around a tenth of a volt. An outline of the process is contained in the early slides of this ppt.
We learn new languages by extending and developing this network in our brain. Like any other electrical network, it requires energy to activate it, and can "blow" if overloaded. In language learning, the activation comes initially from external stimulus in teaching and interaction with new material and other people, and the blowout results in a breakdown of understanding. The art of teaching languages lies in presenting them in ways that make it easy for children to learn, by building carefully on what they already know, and extending and reinforcing their mental networks by channelling their thinking in ways that make it easy for them to understand and consolidate their new ways of thinking.
Errors in teaching stem from not understanding these processes. Overloading people with too much new material, in written or oral form, blows their circuits and prevents learning. Copying inhibits learning, by forcing learners to jerk their attention back and forth from their own version to the original, making it much more difficult for their brain cells to form and consolidate new connections.
Firm evidence of these mental processes has only been available with the development of brain scanning technology over the past forty or so years, and the weaknesses in both traditional grammar teaching, and the immersion methods that replaced it, need to be seen in this context. My late friend Michel Thomas was one of the first to understand the benefits of grafting the new language onto the learner's existing language. He used shared words between languages to enable new learners to communicate easily by using words they already knew, a technique that left them free to apply most of their attention to learning grammatical structures.
Michel did not, however, appreciate the need to make similar adjustments in teaching writing, and his courses are entirely oral. Towards the end of his life, I showed him how this could be achieved in French, and he responded with great enthusiasm to the demonstration. Provided we ensure that children fully understand their work at all times, spoken and written language both make an essential contribution to the development of understanding. The areas of the brain that deal with them are closely connected and intertwined, and it is therefore an error to see spoken and written language as separate skills. They are different channels of communication, with some differences in the skills needed to use them, but essentially two sides of the same coin.