Strengthening Foreign Language Skills Through Performance and Humor

At the Washington Waldorf School, as at many schools, students get to showcase their musical, acting, and artistic talents with concerts, plays, and displays. But unlike other schools, Washington Waldorf gives its students the chance to share what they have learned in their mandatory foreign language classes with a unique event called the Day of the Languages for grades seven through 12.

This year’s end-of-winter program, which took place on Feb. 19, is a Washington Waldorf creation. Every student in grades eight through 12 creates and participates in humorous skits, speaking German or Spanish, depending on the language they chose to study. Seventh-graders — some of whom could be in their first year of German — put up decorations and watch.

The event boosts students’ motivation and confidence as well as their understanding of language nuances and cultural context. It’s a natural fit for a school like Washington Waldorf, where instilling a love of language is a critical component of its educational philosophy. All students at the school learn Spanish in grades one through six, then choose whether to switch to German or continue with Spanish in grade seven.

During the five weeks leading up to the Day of the Languages, students develop and practice their skits. Eighth- and ninth-graders receive some writing assistance from foreign language teachers, but by grade 10, students write their skits independently.

Many skits reference pop culture — incorporating song lyrics from Katy Perry or Taylor Swift, for example. A skit might include a different take on a fairy tale or describe a funny cultural misunderstanding.

The focus on humor challenges students to be funny in a language that is not their own, say Spanish teacher Laurent Andre and German instructor Gabriele Schilz. Humor is one of the most difficult things to translate, Schilz adds, because students have to determine whether the joke works in another language and culture.

This aligns with Washington Waldorf’s holistic approach, teaching students not just how to communicate in another language but also how to adopt a different perspective, Schilz says.

The humor has another obvious benefit: It makes the event and preparations more fun.
Many people in the audience — mostly students, parents, and teachers — don’t fully understand the languages being spoken, but they can pick up on body language and other nonverbal cues that people of all cultures use when telling a joke.

“That’s important to us — that everyone has the experience, including teachers,” Schilz says.

In preparation for the Day of the Languages, students are urged to convey meanings not just through foreign language, but also with acting and mannerisms, cultural context, recognizable themes, and familiar-sounding words.

And those five weeks of preparation are both intensive and immersive. Andre, for example, says he gives students directions in Spanish for how to write their skits, just as he and Schilz try to speak only Spanish or German in their classes.

The Day of the Languages and the weeks leading up it “inject real life into something that is quite academic,” Andre says. “It’s almost like living abroad. By the end, they have more confidence in their ability to express themselves.”