A row of fitness bikes for physical engagement in the gym

Let’s get physical: Language learning through fitness

If you subscribe to one of the many theories of learning styles, traditional classroom or book-based language learning might seem a bit unimaginative. They hit all the familiar targets: visual, auditory – tactile, even, if you use devices or props like Talking Dice. But one kind of learning – kinaesthetic, or physical, movement-focussed – seems conspicuously absent.

Movement can be fun. And sometimes, it seems that kids get all that fun. There are already schemes that pair physical movement with language for young learners, like 5-a-day.tv. In the style of a fitness video, target language is inserted into the routine so the kids have fun moving, and learn at the same time. By all accounts, these techniques are really effective motivators in the primary language classroom. So why shouldn’t adults have a go, too?

Like a superset at the gym, you’re combining two activities here for maximum efficiency. Rather than body blitz and more body blitz, though, these technique engage your body and brain together. Two for the price of one – never a bad deal, and the very essence of hacking your learning!

Get physical with YouTube videos

One of the best things about YouTube fitness videos is that you can follow along even if you don’t grasp every word. Finding them is just a case of trawling YouTube search with some choice keywords in the target language. You could try ‘ejercicios en español’ or ‘Fitness auf Deutsch’, for example. Here are some of of the stand-out channels and playlists I’ve found:

French

German

Spanish

Some of them seem quite gender-specific, but there should be enough variety on YouTube to cater for every taste.

Videos too complex for a class you’re teaching? Maybe devise a simplified routine using parts of the body and direction words, for example – it could make a nice three-minute warm-up to a lesson.

Filling empty time at the gym

If you go to a gym regularly, you’ll be familiar with ’empty time’. It’s those minutes while you’re on a treadmill or machine, robotically repping out your exercises with the brain otherwise disengaged (or in daydream mode).

It’s easy to think of ways to fill this with language learning, and you most likely already do this if you gym – podcasts, foreign language music and such like. But there are other ways to push yourself too, not always necessitating headphones. Great if you find you’ve left them at home when you get to the gym!

Treadmill challenges

Last year, I realised to my horror that I knew loads of Norwegian vocab – but was rubbish at numbers. To be honest, it’s something I hear a lot from other linguaphiles – numbers are dull, boring, everyday kinds of words that just aren’t interesting to spend time learning.

Well, cue the treadmill and some creative gamifying! I find that the rhythm of a moderate jog – that regular thud-thud-thud of your shoes on each tread – is a great timer for some self-testing. I challenged myself to say (under my breath, I’m not an attention-seeker!) a certain number pattern to that rhythm.

For example, I’d start simple and practise 1 to 20 in order. Then I’d switch to recalling them backwards, from 20 to 1. After then, I’d do the tens, then I’d do even numbers up to 50 or so, then odd… There are myriad variations to keep your otherwise disengaged brain occupied.

And the great thing about it is its mindful nature; as you practise, recall becomes almost automatic, and the physical exercise almost easier as your focus is not on getting tired, but reciting your numbers. Very Zen.

More than just numbers

You can adapt this technique to any vocab item. Pick a topic – colours, say – and challenge yourself to say a new, non-repeated word on every footfall. Take it beyond single words – talk about yourself, or tell a story, with a word every tread. Great for practising connectives like ‘and’, ‘then’, ‘but’ and so on, as you form super-long sentences while you work out.

No gym? No worry!

You can take the principle of these ‘footfall challenges’ into any setting. Walking to the shops? Practise your numbers 1-20 as you go. Climbing the stairs? Count them in your target language. It’s a great way to make use of time when you’d otherwise be thinking about nothing in particular.

App coaches

There are hundreds of fitness apps available for mobile devices these days. Every aspect is covered, from nutrition to health monitoring and fitness coaching. Thanks to localisation – the inclusion of alternative languages into app interfaces – you can also enjoy some language practice every time you use these.

Most of the time, accessing foreign language interfaces in your fitness apps requires that you switch your phone’s operating language to the one you’re learning. Scary, I know – but it’s a brilliant technique to increase your immersion in a language generally. My phone has been speaking to me in Norwegian for the past year, and I’ve learnt a stack of vocab from it in that time.

I’ve found the following apps brilliant in ‘foreign language mode’:

  • MyFitnessPal: a food intake / exercise diary app – vocab like ‘saturated fat’, ‘carbohydrates’ and ‘remaining calories’ is now indelibly etched on my brain!
  • Runtastic Push-Ups: a great coaching programme that takes you from 2-3 push-ups to 250 over time. It will bark instructions at you, sergeant-style, in several languages, and provide Rocky-style inspirational quotes. Also check out runtastic’s other coaching apps here.
  • Apple Health / Activity and Samsung Health apps: these are bundled with recent versions of each operating system, and are the default steps / health trackers. Switching your phone language means all your data becomes a learning opportunity!

For sure, there are lots more ways to combine learning with other areas of your life like this. It’s both time-efficient and fun. And it can create a more rounded approach to learning by including physical, kinaesthetic aspects. And, by embedding languages into things you already love, you’re more likely to keep learning.

 

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