Language Acquisition: The Bird is the Word
There is a cartoon that I love to watch called Family Guy (Uma Familia da Pesada). It isn’t to everyone’s taste because of the casual violence, bad language and somewhat offensive jokes. Whether you like it or not it’s clear that the writers know quite a bit about how young children behave.
One of the main characters is called Stewie, a talking and very intelligent baby. No matter how smart he might be, though, he is still a baby and so likes to do babyish things. One famous scene involves Stewie going crazy for a song called ‘The Bird is The Word’ because of the repetitive nature of the lyrics. The scene ends with Stewie desperate to hear the song again because “I love repetition!”
Whoever said that children don’t have long attention spans has obviously never seen a toddler doing something that they love not once, not twice but a million times.
They can sing the same song a million times, and insist that the parent sings along. They can read the same book every night for weeks on end. They can demand the same DVD of Galinha Pintadinha until you think you are going insane. They can repeat one word or phrase over and over as if it were on a loop. At least one of the reasons for doing this is that they are learning through repetition.
Kids love repetition.
Adults are not supposed to be as fond of repetition. Apparently, we get bored if we do the same things over and over again. We need to be stimulated by new ideas and situations. We hate Galinha Pintadinha.
And yet, I find myself using a lot of repetition in my classes and as a language learner. Drills are perhaps the most obvious of techniques that employ repetition in the classroom. While they may have fallen out of favour with theorists it is still clear to me that lots of teachers are using drills and students like them for the opportunity to focus on the sounds rather than the meaning of the language.
But there are other types of repetition that we can see in language classrooms. It is true that repeating the activity can get boring, but if done naturally it can help students to grow in confidence. Using theatre with students encourages them to repeat lines until they get them right. Many students like singing songs, or even just listening to songs, more than once.
As a language learner, I have rehearsed in my mind a few times what I need to say on the phone before calling for a pizza. I can watch Porta dos Fundos all day long, partly because it’s so funny, but also because I learn something new about Portuguese every time. (At the moment, my favourite one is ‘Batalha‘.) I have been caught by other drivers as I practised the pronunciation of certain sounds at the wheel of my car when stuck in traffic.
It’s not only children who love repetition, but given the right circumstances, so do adults. After all…
‘A-well-a, everybody’s heard about the bird
Bird, bird, bird, bird is the word (x7)’
“Surfin’ Bird” by The Trashmen