There is a language teaching method called “Total Physical Response” which requires students to respond physically to instructions. I’ve never quite seen how this can go very far beyond “stand up” “sit down” and “open your book” in adult classes, although it is basic to teaching small children who are happy to run, jump, skip, colour, pick up and touch whatever you tell them to at the drop of a hat. However, there is more to this physical response business than meets the eye. In my classes I always make sure that students repeat sounds out loud and become aware of how their mouths are shaped, where their tongue and lips go and whereabouts in a word they should be putting the emphasis. This is in fact another form of “physical response” albeit not “total”.
The problem is that as adults we spend so much time internalising our thoughts, emotions and reactions that we think that as long as we’ve understood something, and possibly written it down to remind ourselves, this will be enough for it to be learnt properly. However, this is only the start of the process. What we absolutely must do is create the links or paths between our brain and our vocal chords to produce the sound of the words we have in our heads. Students often tell me that in real situations they “know in their heads” what they have to say but that it doesn´t come out right when they open their mouths. This is often because the link between brain and mouth has not been sufficiently established by repeating sounds out loud.
If you think back to any new skill you have learnt in the past such as writing, typing, knitting, playing the piano, driving or dancing, you will remember that they have all required many hours of slow and patient practice, often involving a great deal of frustration. Eventually the skills have become automatic and movements which seemed impossibly awkward start to flow together effortlessly. Exactly the same process has to occur with speaking a new language. If you can´t get your mouth round a long, difficult word or the combination of words in a sentence, you need to repeat them, out loud, over and over again, first slowly and then faster, until they become second nature. It should be normal to walk round the house repeating sounds and words over and over again. The only problem really is that your husband, wife, partner or dog will think you’ve gone crazy, although I’ve found that cats seem to take these things in their stride.