Ever tried learning a new language with toddlers?  It’s fab fun – if you do it in a way that really engages them that is. Now I’ve loved foreign languages ever since I was introduced to French in secondary school. I soon took up German then taught myself a bit of conversational Spanish and Portuguese (it’s rude not to when we travel there on our jollies). I’ve learned some Italian (from operas mostly) and Japanese (very basic I might add) and I often watch foreign movies without the subtitles just because I like to push my own boundaries. I even like to try to translate Latin. Yes, I really am a sadist. And I am really fascinated with the origins of our own English vocabulary and how they have changed in meaning over the years. (Read this about place names, this is interesting too). Etymology – who’d have thought I’d ever even know what that is never mind become a huge fan of it?

Now, we didn’t even particularly start out to practice our colours in French today but the moment just arose naturally as we were sharing a book about colours and finding those colours around the room and popping our finds into individual baskets. It’s a great game that the children never tire of but then one of them stopped in her tracks and I could see the cogs turning. Where is Ben’s home? she asked. Now, Ben is the name of one of our empathy dolls who has been coming to childcare for a very long time now and it’s actually short for Benoît (it’s French, the English equivalent is Benedict and it means blessed, just to save you googling it). Anyway, although Ben lives in Hartlepool now he and his family originally came from France when he was a tiny baby (empathy dolls have their own evolving life story). It’s not entirely relevant here but Ben is deaf too – I’ll write about Ben and his comteporary, Geri, another time.

Cue ad hoc French lesson. (See what I did there?) Now, it doesn’t have to be difficult (even for those who don’t speak French) to slip in a few common words and phrases. I’m sure everyone knows yes, no and thank you in the very least and how taxing can it be to learn a few basic colours? But I know a bit more French so find me something blue became find me something bleu. Then find me something bleu s’il te plaît. Then trouvez moi something bleu s’il te plaît. Then trouvez moi quelque choses bleu s’il te plaît. Thank you became merci, then merci beaucoup (or merci coo coo to our adorable little pipsqueak) and well done became très bien. Before we knew it, we were all speaking French. As the activity went on, we added in more vocabulary, écoutez moi rather than listen to me, va vite for go quickly, allez for go. Before long we stopped referring to the book for colour prompts altogether. We stopped saying the French and English simultaneously and stuck only with the French. It grew and grew all by itself, following the children’s real interest and enjoyment in their learning.

It then seemed natural to go on to bringing back deux bleu (the kids thought this sounded hilarious) trois jeune, quatre rouge etc. But what came next was wonderful. One of the children wanted to take the lead. She sat in the armchair and asked have you all got your ears switched on? Yes we did. Get me rouge. Allez vite (she thought of that little phrase all by herself!) The kids responded to her instructions without hesitation and scrambled about fetching back every red thing they could find and she’s sitting there giving both thumbs up saying tres bien, tres bien and laughing her little head off.  And would you believe it? They played this game from 10am to lunchtime. How amazing is that?

And this is what planning in the moment is all about – capturing the moment of engagement and just running with it, making sure children make progress. And boy, what progress they made. It is in this moment of curiosity, puzzlement, effort or interest – the ‘teachable moment’ – that the skilful adult makes a difference. You can have all the toys, posters and printables in the world but the best resource a child can have is you. Just you.

So then chatting over lunch together we talked about the fun we’d just had and I reminded them we can play that game in lots of other languages too so which would they like next: Spanish or German or Welsh? Thanks (I think) to Dora the Explorer, they chose Spanish. So Spanish it is then. Español? Póngalo a prueba.

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