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Brazilian Kids Befriend US Retirees to Improve Their English: Why Conversation is Crucial for Language Learning

Reading and writing are key elements of the language learning process, but speaking is just as if not more important. Learning to speak a new language takes practice, confidence, and — most essentially — two-way interaction.  A touching video case-study that pairs Brazilian kids with elderly Americans illustrates how meaningful conversation is the best teaching tool.  

Adweek produced a video featuring a project entitled Perfect Match: Brazilian Kids Learn English by Video Chatting with Lonely Elderly Americans, which demonstrates the importance of one-on-one contact when learning a language.

This “Speaking Exchange” program connects young Brazilians who want to learn English with American pensioners who seek conversation partners to provide a pastime and companionship.

The pilot project was realized by a CNA school in Liberdade, Brazil and the Windsor Park Retirement Community in Chicago, and involves web chats between students in Liberdade and elderly Americans in Chicago. The chats are recorded and uploaded as private YouTube videos for teachers to watch and evaluate students’ progress.

Joanna Montiero, executive creative director at FCB Brazil, the agency behind the program, said “The idea is simple and it’s a win-win proposition for both the students and the American senior citizens. It’s exciting to see their reactions and contentment. It truly benefits both sides.”

Vanessa Valenca, a coordinator of the project, highlighted how the program gives students the chance to interact with native speakers without having to travel abroad. She says students aim to learn English fluently, and this project makes the process “more real, more human.”

The touching video case-study shows the very real relationships the students and pensioners have developed.  Chatting does more than improve students’ English skills; as pairs discuss personal histories and goals, they enrich each other’s lives and experience a deeper cultural and emotional exchange.

Analyzing How Your Brain Works

Language expert Andrew Weiler discusses why improving conversation skills is important for language learning, identifying speaking and listening as at the heart of learning a language, and it turns out there is a neurological basis for his argument.

Research shows that the parts of the brain that develop reading and writing skills communicate little with the regions responsible for speaking.  However, the parts of your brain involved in learning to speak communicate extensively with the reading and writing regions.  In other words, while reading and writing a language may not make you a better speaker, once you can speak, you’ll be able to write what you can say.

The efficacy of this strategy depends on the first language of the student and the language being taught, but generally speaking once the basics of written words are grasped, speaking skills have the ability to translate to reading and writing skills.

Practice Makes Perfect

Practice, practice, practice is the best way to learn a language, Weiler says. The best kind of practice is engaging in the kinds of conversations that students want to have; a compelling conversation forces students to communicate exactly what they mean while encouraging them to listen carefully because they want to understand what is being said.

The CNA project puts students in a circumstance where they want to express precisely what they mean and understand what new friends are saying. Although the first web chat interactions may start off a bit rough or interrupted as the two get to know each other, soon a relationship forms; students and pensioners both start to enjoy themselves and focus more on communicating than just regurgitating words.

Be Confident!

Confidence is key when learning a new language. Author of Fluent in Three Months, Benny Lewis says unleashing your confidence is vital when learning a language. He says engaging in full conversations with a native speaker is a necessary step. Learning a language can be a scary process because it takes students out of their comfort zone, often far out of their comfort zone.

Instead of making huge leaps to reach the goal, Lewis advocates taking small steps and setting intermediary goals. Having one-one conversations is a crucial “small” step, challenging enough for students that they learn effectively, but comfortable enough that they want to do it.

Making Learning A Language Less Intimidating

The web-chats designed by FCB created an environment that was less threatening to students; alternative situations such as ordering food in a foreign restaurant would entail speaking to someone unfamiliar, often in front of a group.

One-to-one conversations are essential for both learning to speak and learning to read and write. Practicing speaking is key to building students’ confidence, and confidence is key to becoming truly fluent in a new language.

Meaningful conversations not only build speaking skills, they provide a safe environment for language learners to test themselves, and just as importantly give enjoyment to students.  That sense of fun and relationship building encourages faster learning, more refined language skills, and cultural awareness.

Listen & Learn offers intensive one-to-one lessons to help you learn the language faster, with the undivided attention of your tutor.