Welcome to my first post in a requested series of posts about wacky language learning techniques that people have used over the years. I can't think of a better one to start with than Zuiikin' English, a wacky language learning system that is so memorable it has quite a cult following on the web.
Zuiikin' English is a series of shorts that showed on Japanese TV during the early 90s. It was a morning show that aired near the morning news. In this program, Japanese women dressed in exercise clothing lead the viewer through a series of exercises where they make body movements and say English sentences in time to percussive music, as the sentence is displayed in both English and Japanese on the screen. The sentences involve topics that would be of interest to a business traveler from Japan, such as how to meet people to date, safety, and getting medical help in an English speaking country. Many of these videos have made their way to YouTube. Here is a quintessential example:
The theory: Unfortunately there is very little available about the theory behind Zuiikin' English, so I have to base this whole section on the Wikipedia article on Zuiikin' English and what I remember from reading about it before. Apparently the person who invented this language learning method feels that speakers of different languages use different body parts more in their everyday movements, and thought that practicing certain kinds of body movements would help the language learner to more naturally learn the language of the people who use those body parts more. I assume this is the reason that the exercises seem to involve a lot of arm movement in comparison to movements of other body parts.
Why it doesn't work: As many language learners know, memorization of a sentence does not mean that you can speak the language of the sentence. Ignoring the movement part of the video, basically you have an English sentence and a Japanese sentence on the screen at the same time. The learners aren't really learning English, then; they are just thinking of a sentence in Japanese and then saying a memorized series of sounds associated with that Japanese sentence. This is the language equivalent of repeating your times tables, being able to spit out an answer that is associated with a question. You can do this without understanding the meaning behind the English words or grammar in the English sentence at all. (Any other language learning program that teaches sentences in the target language by glossing them in the learner's native language has the same problem.) The body movements probably aid the memorization process, but the underlying theory that body movements of certain groups of people are somehow associated with their languages has no research basis that I am aware of.
Another more minor problem with Zuiikin' English is the rhythms associated with the sentences. There is no doubt that different languages have different rhythms (this is one of my favorite topics on language) and a big part of comprehensibility in English pronunciation is using the rhythm that listeners expect. In Zuiikin' English
the rhythm of the English sentences is changed to go along with the music. If learners speak these sentences with this rhythm, it may be more difficult for native speakers to understand them.
If we look at Zuiikin' English as just a fun program rather than a serious language learning methodology I can definitely see the appeal. Enjoy this list of Zuiikin' videos on YouTube. And what better way to end this post than this video: