Meet the Flamboyant Flock: In Conversation with Volunteer Tutor Sarah McKenna 

At Lingo Flamingo we use language learning as a therapeutic platform for those living with dementia and other cognitive conditions. Our aim is to make language learning as accessible, engaging, and stimulating as possible. As such, our flock of volunteer language tutors who deliver our slow-paced, sensory classes are at the heart of what we do. Today we meet with one of them  to chat about her experience of teaching older adults. So, to kick things off let’s allow her to introduce herself… 

"My names Sarah, I’m a final year languages student at Glasgow University, studying French and Spanish. As a person I’d say I'm friendly and I like to communicate with people… and that’s one of the reasons I got in touch with LingoFlamingo, and one of the reasons I study languages."

Unsurprisingly, at LingoFlamingo we think language learning is wonderful, and that the benefits of it should be available to all.  But what is it that you yourself love about languages?

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"If you have a second language, you can communicate with a wider range of people… and you can do so many different things if you have languages… And that’s why I feel is really important [to make them accessible]. Often language learning is something that people think about doing, but when it comes to it they maybe think they cant, because it’s hard, or too difficult, but it’s just about breaking that down, that “I can’t do it perspective” that people in the UK tend to have, making it more accessible."

So, for the readers at home, LingoFlamingo use language teaching as a way to combat brain ageing and other cognitive conditions, this being based on some very interesting research that learning a language is incredibly good for the brain. Now, no two classes are the same, so can you tell us about us wee bit about yours? 

"I worked in Cambuslang with a group of around 10 people who had cognitive injuries due to alcohol abuse [ARBI]. Their ages ranged from fifty to seventy, and they had a range of cognitive impairments, so I had to change and adapt the material to suit their needs and ability, taking account of what they could and couldn’t do, thinking of the ways they could learn."

So, given the varying needs and abilities of this group, how did you approach teaching? 

"I didn’t necessarily see myself as their teacher, I was just there to give them a hand and maybe help them learn things they didn't know before. And that’s how I did it; the more fun you have with it, the more people enjoy it, the more they’re laughing and smiling, it makes it more likely for them to then think ‘oh maybe next week I can answer out”.

I like to make it as informal as possible, not build it up to a point where it feels like a question has to be answered… You need to put on a show, to put yourself out there, because if you don't sort of do a silly thing then there’s no way they’re going to reciprocate."

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Our classes are made to be an immersive experience, engaging all the senses. Did you create any unique, sensory activities for your students?

"Each week there was a different theme, so I worked around that. So one week, for example, we were learning about seasons - so spring, summer, autumn, winter - and I brought in objects that I associated with each season. So, I had snowflakes for winter, little birds for spring, leaves for autumn, and then for summer I had those little straws with those wee umbrellas that come out of them. I told students to shut their eyes and, for example, I’d put the snow flakes in their hand, and having already told them [the vocabulary] for spring, summer, autumn, winter in their new language, they would have to guess what they had. I found my group responded really well to [activities like this]."

A key part of what we do at Lingo Flamingo is changing perceptions and promoting the idea that it’s never too late to learn. Do you think you helped to changed any hearts or minds in your class?

"Well, there was one man who at the start didn't speak at all for the first couple of weeks, and then he came up to me and said “I wasn’t very good at languages at school”. I replied “it’s okay, that’s why we’re doing this, so we can learn something new and you can enjoy it”. [He maybe let that sink in] and as the weeks carried on he got really involved in it all and would answer my questions. And that was something I found really rewarding, that as it progressed students got more confident, that they answered out, that they seemed to enjoy it as well."

Do you think your experience at Lingo Flamingo might help you in the future? 

"So I would like to do teaching I think, probably high school teaching, just because of the experiences I have had at LingoFlamingo and of teaching primary children [in Spain]. So, I do want to teach… its just the thought of going into high school and a lot of people don't like languages, they don't want to engage with it. So i think that will be hard, to teach people who are not linguistically minded, who don't want to study languages at all."

Perhaps that’s maybe where the LingoFlamingo experience has some relation, in making classes accessible and language enjoyable to those who might not initially suspect it?

"Mmm, with the experience of Lingo Flamingo - changing perspectives on [languages], and trying to making it much more accessible -  maybe I can take that to high school and try and change their attitudes… Maybe that’s a wee bit too optimistic." 

… Finally, would you give any advice to new volunteers?

"I think mostly just enjoy it and relax. Those are the main two. Because if you're class sees that you’re nervous, or that you’re stressed out about it, they’re not going to enjoy it as much. So I think just stay calm and enjoy the experience… I’d say a wee bit of preparation is really important too, even if it’s just half an hour or an hour, just going through what you’re going to do in the class, and having little extra activities to do as well. Just be creative as well, because it’s more fun that way, and people seem to enjoy it more. 

If you, like Sarah, have a passion for languages, and would like to empower older adults and contribute to creating a warmer, more connected society, then get in touch with us here to register your interest in volunteering. 

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