7 Foreign Language Activities for Exciting and Effective Lessons
Sometimes, teaching a foreign language can seem like an uphill battle.
The best way to succeed is to make work not seem like work. Language learning should be fun and engaging—for your students and you!
You may have external forces giving you requirements for the curriculum, textbook work, quizzes and tests.
But you can still capture your students’ attention with interesting activities, projects and exercises—and here are seven foreign language activities that fit the bill!
- 1. The Long, Mysterious Adventure
- 2. Travel Agency Posters
- 3. Folk Tales
- 4. Shopping Spree
- 5. The Native Restaurant
- 6. The Airport VIP Lounge
- 7. Waiting in Line
- Choosing Foreign Language Activities for Your Class
1. The Long, Mysterious Adventure
This multiple-choice style activity is much like a scavenger hunt. Your students will randomly discover tasks to perform in order to earn the “clue” for the next task.
This adventure offers focused practice on specific, already-covered language points, but is much more fun than a pop quiz!
To set up “The Long, Mysterious Adventure,” you will need:
- Five or six envelopes each of a few different colors
- Index cards
- Several tokens of the same colors as the envelopes
If each color has five envelopes, you’ll choose five task categories, such as: singing a song, spelling a word, having a short conversation, answering a riddle and doing a simple math problem.
Prepare the index cards with various instructions for actions in each category. For instance, on one task card, you might write: Sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” On another, you could put: Ask your partner to tell you the time.
Keep the tasks quick to perform and make sure they aren’t terribly tricky. That is, the students should be familiar with most of the tasks from regular class activity. Do not repeat specific tasks on multiple index cards—each should be unique.
Once you’ve written all the index cards, put one into each envelope. Each envelope of a certain color will have a task from each task category. That is, the five blue envelopes will contain tasks for: a song, spelling, a conversation, a riddle and a math problem. Same with the red envelopes, and the yellow, etc.
Running the activity:
Push all the tables to the edges of the room and set the teacher’s chair in front. Put all the blue envelopes on one table, all the red envelopes on another table and so on.
Pair up the students, using a dice or playing cards to keep the pairings random. Give each pair a colored token. Students will go to the table with the envelopes of the same color and choose one at random.
The pairs will take their task envelope and form a line in front of you. The first pair in line will open their envelope and read the task out loud, then perform the task together.
A satisfactory performance earns a token drawn randomly from a bag or hat. The successful pair can head to the next table to get another task and get back in line.
However, an unsatisfactory performance sends the pair back to the same table to choose another task. They can’t get a new token until they’ve done a task from that table to your satisfaction.
The activity can last the entire class time if you make enough tasks, or it can end when one of the student pairs has managed to get one token of each of the available colors.
2. Travel Agency Posters
The quiet activity focuses on the target language culture. It can be done in pairs or small groups of three or four students.
Together, each group will create a poster of a tradition to be explained to the class. This project is great for visual language cues as well as question and answer practice.
Before class, gather the following materials:
- A list of target language traditions (wedding ceremonies, coming-of-age ceremonies, specific local celebrations, etc.)
- Magazines with pictures to cut out
- Newspapers for cutting out letters or words
- Poster boards
- Glue or tape
- Crayons, colored pencils or markers
Running the activity:
Explain different types of traditions celebrated in the target language culture. Give several examples, and compare local traditions to your students’ own cultures to help give them context. What are some similarities? How are celebrations different? This will help create a cultural connection.
Next, assign one tradition to each pair or small group. Tell the students that they’ll be making destination posters for a travel agency to attract tourists, focusing on their given tradition.
Posters should include the name of the tradition and pictures that represent it. Be present as students prepare their posters, answering questions and sharing more details of each tradition.
You can provide or answer a set of questions for them to focus on, if desired:
- How do people dress for this event?
- Where do they meet?
- How much does it cost to…?
You may want to give your students a few sessions to complete their posters. This gives them something fun, artsy and low-pressure to look forward to each day.
Once the posters are finished, hang them around the room. Have each group (or one group member) explain the points on the poster and answer any questions from the other students.
3. Folk Tales
This activity also centers on the target language culture. You and your students will read a few folk tales from this culture, and later, they’ll create their own folk tale to share with the class.
To make the most of this activity, you’ll want to plan to have students work on it in short bursts over a few class periods, rather than all at once.
You’ll need to select at least two target language folk tales. They can be translated versions, if needed.
The stories should have similar aspects, such as a similar structure, character type or magical element. For example, one tale might involve an animal character that’s always getting into trouble. The second might also involve an animal, or a person causing trouble.
You may be able to find children’s picture books of the tales, which is obviously great for young learners, but can also benefit beginners and lower-intermediate students of any age.
Make sure you yourself have a decent understanding of the structure of the folk tales before class begins.
Running the activity:
Sit with your students in a circle, like you’re at a campfire. Turn out the lights and set a lamp in the middle of the circle, or maybe even a couple of dry logs, just to create ambiance!
Tell one of the folk tales aloud, as dramatically as you can. Then, tell the second one in the same manner.
Divide your students into pairs or small groups. As a class, outline the basic concepts found in both stories. Once you’ve reviewed the structures of both, have the students copy the outline of general concepts: characters, situation, type of conflict and resolution of conflict.
Now, inform them that they’re going to create a folk tale of their own, based upon the target language culture. This can range from a Greek tragedy to the shenanigans of Br’er Rabbit—it just needs to be based upon cultural elements.
Schedule about 15 minutes per week of folk tale preparation. After several weeks, their story should be complete. I recommend having them keep notes rather than a fully written copy. That will make the remembering and telling of the story more instinctive.
Next, change things up so they can practice telling the tale amongst themselves as groups. Let them know that it’s okay to make mistakes, tell a flat story or lose their train of thought in these sessions—that’s how you practice!
After a week or two of practice, gather everyone around the “campfire” again. Have each pair or group tell their story as best they can. Don’t forget to applaud when each tale is done!
4. Shopping Spree
“Shopping Spree” allows your students to practice everyday language such as general vocabulary, money exchange and numbers. It’s a Monopoly-style board game that just keeps going!
First, gather the following materials:
- A large piece of cardboard to make the playing board
- Play money
- Food cards
- Luck cards
- Shopping cart folders
You’ll start by making the game board, drawn in the manner of a Monopoly board and written in the target language. Make sure to include:
- A “Go” square
- A few “Lucky Day!” squares
- A “Parking” square
- At least one “Supermarket” square per edge
- Other creative squares, like “Exchange a Product” or “Sell a Product”
You can make the rest of the materials yourself as well or have the students help while in class.
For the food cards, you’ll cut and paste pictures of food items onto cards. You’ll make a price list for these products. It isn’t necessary to write the name of the food on the card—students should learn to name the product from its picture.
You’ll need a couple dozen “Lucky Day!” cards with rewards related to shopping, like “10% discount on your next purchase” or “You’ve just won $10 in the sweepstakes!”
The shopping carts will be made of cards that are a bit larger, folded in half, with a shopping cart drawn on the front.
Running the activity:
Following general Monopoly rules, players will collect a sum of money each time they pass “Go.” They’ll have to pay parking when they land on the “Parking” corner (much like the Monopoly “Jail” square). They’ll choose a Luck card on the “Luck” square, and so on.
When students land on a “Supermarket” square, they’ll choose a food card from the top of the pile. Based on this card, they’ll say something like, “I’d like some peas, please” or “How much are the carrots?”
You’ll tell them the cost from your price list. They’ll pay the bank and put the food into their shopping cart. Have them count out the money and have a chosen cashier count out the change (like the Monopoly banker would).
This activity can go on without end, or you can set a goal. For instance, having five products in your shopping cart earns you another shopping cart to fill; the student with the most full shopping carts at the end of class earns the title of “Best Shopper!”
5. The Native Restaurant
This is a role-play activity involving opening and running a local restaurant. It will help students practice both customer and worker language in a restaurant setting.
For “The Native Restaurant,” you’ll need:
- Several plastic table settings (plates, flatware, glasses, napkins)
- Cardboard to make menus
- Notepads to take orders
- Role cards, in sets
Role cards will need to include cook, waiter/waitress and host/hostess, at least.
Running the activity:
Split students into groups. Three people per group is ideal for the roles given above. Give each student in the group one of the role cards from the set.
Their task is to open a restaurant featuring local dishes. As a group, each keeping their role in mind, they’ll make a short menu with appetizers, main dishes, desserts and drinks native to the target language, with prices.
Once the menu is prepared, each group will practice what they will say to customers. Here, tasks can include:
- Welcoming and seating the client (Host/Customer)
- Giving the menu and describing any specials (Host)
- Taking the order (Waiter/Customer)
- Serving the food (Waiter)
- Addressing a complaint (Customer/Waiter/Cook)
You can pose the following questions and elicit answers in the target language to help guide them:
- What do you say when you seat a customer?
- How do you sell a particular dish from the daily special menu?
- How do you lead the customer through the order?
- What do you say when you set the food before the customer?
- How do you apologize for a problem, and how do you make it right to make your customer happy?
You can also prepare them to act as a customer with these questions:
- How do you greet the host?
- How do you order food?
- How do you react when you get your food?
- What if you don’t like the food?
- What different ways are there to complain?
- How do you explain your dissatisfaction to the waiter?
Once students have practiced, set up a table as the “restaurant” and have one person from a different group play the customer. Have each group present the restaurant scene from greeting to handling the complaint.
Afterwards, ask the students who have been customers to award Michelin stars to each of the restaurants based upon service and response to the complaint.
6. The Airport VIP Lounge
Your students will play people from different walks of life waiting in the VIP lounge for a flight that has been delayed because of bad weather. This activity helps learners practice improvisational speech.
To set up the activity, you’ll need:
- Paper or cardstock to make into role cards
- Index cards to make into situation cards
Running the activity:
Brainstorm with your students the kinds of people who would use a VIP lounge at the airport. Exaggerate the roles. For example:
- A rich business tycoon
- A famous movie star
- A popular sports player
- A prince or princess
Note these ideas on the board, then assign your students to make role cards for the characters, giving them names, personality traits, income levels, etc.
Now brainstorm things that can happen in an airport that people love to complain about. For instance:
- Security check nightmares
- Lost luggage
- Unpleasant ticket agents
- Extra fees
- Flight horror stories
Note a couple dozen of these ideas on the situation cards.
Now, choose two students at random. Give each a role card and a situation card. Have them sit in the “lounge” where there are five chairs set up. They first make small talk regarding the late flight. They then talk about a personal experience based upon their situation cards.
After about two minutes, choose another student, hand them a role card and a situation card, and have them join the first two. They’ll change the subject according to their situation card. The others share their thoughts about it, in character.
Add a student every two minutes, with their roles and situation cards. Once the last student has been complaining for two minutes, stop the activity and start over with two students who haven’t gone yet.
Ideally, you will rotate the students rapidly for this practice, using a timer to keep track of time. To keep it immersive, each time the timer rings, make a flight announcement to cue the next student’s entrance.
7. Waiting in Line
Everyone has to wait in line. To pass the time, we make small talk, so that’s what students will practice in this activity.
You’ll need to gather paper, cards or other similar materials to make the following:
- Role cards
- Place cards
- Situation cards
Running the activity:
Ask students to brainstorm three lists:
- Places where you have to wait in line (the bank, at the ticket window, at a government office)
- Kinds of people who wait in line (parents, students, taxi drivers, other occupations)
- Reactions people have while waiting in line (get angry, complain loudly, ask to skip turns, try to cut, wait patiently)
Have your students write their lists onto note cards, using different colors for each list (role, places and reactions). You can collect all of the cards to distribute them as the activity goes on.
First, choose a place card and announce to the students where they are standing in line. As in the VIP lounge, start with just two students waiting in line and acting out the role and reaction you’ve given them. Add a new student every two minutes.
When five students have been in line, stop the activity, choose a new place and begin again with two new students.
Choosing Foreign Language Activities for Your Class
There are a wide range of activities that you can run in a language classroom. Of the projects and exercises above, you might recognize the following types:
- Multiple tasks. These activities presents a “plug in” structure to use with any number of tasks, from spelling bees to sing-alongs. You adapt and change content according to current lessons and student needs.
- Target language culture. Activities of this type stimulate your students’ understanding of the culture behind the new language they’re learning.
- Everyday language. These activities help students acquire and practice the most common language of day-to-day situations, which they will encounter when communicating with native speakers or consuming authentic media.
- Improvisational speech. With appropriate clues, improvising becomes second nature. Once students get the hang of saying what they think, they can branch out and truly communicate, no matter their current level of proficiency.
But of course, there are plenty more! Others you might be interested in using with your students include:
- Interpersonal communication activities
- CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) activities
- Task-based activities
- Speaking activities
- Immersion activities
- Pair and group activities
- Translation activities
You’ll want to choose the type of foreign language activities that make the most sense for your class and lesson. In general, though, a good activity is one that involves the students themselves.
By bringing their attention to how much they can participate both in the preparation and the activity, you’re encouraging them to take an active part in the language learning process—and making it more fun!
Tweaking these activities to suit your course material will help to make the lesson or book work you have to cover more engaging. It will also help it stick better.
Good luck and have fun!