Two Different Language Learning Approaches: Self or Survival

ACTFL’s Interpersonal Level Novice Can-Do statements follow a pattern of having students talking about

self  -> family / friends  ->  community / city.
Most of the Novice level focuses on socializing.  In this approach students go from what is most known or familiar  to them (themselves) outward (to others). Most modern day textbook follow this approach. This approach assumes that students in the classroom will be talking in the target language  to other students about things in their lives.

Another approach is the travel approach where students learn a  language to survive in the target language country. This approach concentrates on daily functioning in the language country. Students learn how to order a meal, ask for a hotel room, check on the price of a product, etc. Very old textbooks and travel conversation books follow this pattern. The travel approach assumes that students in the target language country will be talking in the target language to native speakers.

Although students enjoy talking in the target language to each other and learning about each other as in the ACTFL approach, I have found that they feel the geatest sense of achievement when they can do a real-life daily survival task in the language such as “I can ask the price of something.” I try to blend the two approaches.  As soon as my students learn the numbers (1-59) in the first unit , I teach them to go from telling time to asking the price of things such as  “How much does this soccer ticket cost?” Since I use cultural products in class such as a soccer ticket, the students practice asking and answering how much real things cost. In the ACTFL approach, students cannot ask the price of something until the end of Novice Mid, very near the end of the course.

What approach do you use with your students?  What survival skills do your students have even in the beginning level?

At,  I have  5 any language  picture speaking activities, 25+ ready-to-use Spanish structured speaking activities (including 5 Can-Do ones) for beginning students and numerous Spanish investigation cultural activities.

At, I have two ebooks, Modern Language Proficiency: Can-Do Strategies and 90 Mobile Learning Modern Language Activities (mainly speaking and culture)



Do We Teach Modern Language Survival Skills?

For modern language teachers, an essential question is “What would your students do if they were suddenly transported to the target language area?” This question leads to other questions: “Would they be willing to talk to native speakers?… Would they be able to communicate their basic needs for survival?…Would they be able to communicate personal things to the native speaker and ask the native speaker about personal things?”

A follow up question is “How well do we prepare our students to communicate in the target language?” Do we truly teach them survival skills? An exchange student emailed his mother that he had not learned how to say “Where is the bathroom?” so that was the first thing he looked up on his computer when he got to the target language country.  Another student commented that she wished her teacher had spent more than two minutes on “turn right.. turn left..go straight..two blocks” so that she could follow map directions.

How well can your students communicate their basic survival needs?

My e-book, 90 Mobile Learning Mobile Learning Activities, promotes language communication through fourteen different categories of easy-to-implement  mobile activities.

My Spanish spontaneous speaking activities (24+) includes Structured Speaking (Students substitute in or select words to communicate in pairs), Speaking Mats ( Student can talk using a wide variety of nouns, verbs and adjectives to express their ideas in pairs or small group), Modified Speed Dating (Students ask their  partners one question from a card-whole class), Role Playing (Students talk as people in pictures or drawings from 2-4 people), Spontaneous Speaking (based on visuals or topics in pairs), and Grammar speaking games (pairs or small group). Available for a nominal fee at Teacherspayteachers:

At the same site, I have a series of modern language visual stories with no words (the beach, the city, school, etc.) for two students to role play; the restaurant role play involves four students.  These can be used in any language since there are just visuals, no words.

My book, Improving Foreign Language Speaking Through Formative Assessment, and my book, Formative Assessment, Responding to Students, are available at