Foreign Language Teaching Tips, Part 1

24 Oct

Feeling intimidated about teaching your kids a foreign language at home?  In this 3-part series, I offer you ideas on how to make language learning fun and effective, even if you’re not fluent yourself.

1.   Learn as a family so you can use it as a family.

Language is intrinsically social.  You’re supposed to use it with the other human beings.  Perhaps it’s not such a coincidence then that our brains absorb it best by social use.  Not by book learnin’.  Not even from a DVD.  When the whole family learns new vocabulary that they can use for tasks they actually need to do, they have a shared knowledge base with which to operate in real-world situations.  Especially in a homeschooling family, they are together frequently.  One person can remind the others of words they forgot by using them.  Sometimes it’s awkward to overcome the ingrained pattern of using English.  It might feel a little fake at first, but in many ways, a family is an ideal group in which to learn a language.

2.  Saturate their environment with the target language.

  • Label objects around the house.
  • Play the kind of music they like in the target language.
  • Read them children’s books.  (Don’t know how to pronounce it all?  That’s ok.  Just look at them together, tell most of the story in English, but mix in several key words in the TL.)
  • Study newspapers.  (Have a dictionary handy and don’t be afraid to write all over the newspaper).
  • Food–Make their favorite foods together, especially if they are part of the target culture.  Use your vocabulary as you do.)
  • Movies–watch them together, with or without subtitles.

Remember, a lot of what draws a person into a language is having a shared “cultural capital” with the people who speak that language.  Think of how nostalgic you get when talking with people of your generation about a kids’ show you all loved or a favorite candy you used to eat ridiculous amounts of, for example.  Provide those experiences that give them something in common with people of the culture.

3.  DO let them mix languages until they can speak all in the target language.

There are various theories about how people learn language best:

  • One says that what people need is phrases they can use.  (Thus, the pocket phrase books for use on vacation.)
  • Another says they ought to learn lots of lists of vocabulary and perfect their grammar, and then they will be able to go out and use it well later.
  • Another that has held a lot of sway in recent times is the Total Immersion method.  This is what we used to use when I taught at Berlitz (although there were other parts to it and they called it the Berlitz Method there).  While my student was in a session with me, we weren’t supposed to speak any English (unless I was teaching them English), and I wasn’t supposed to ask any questions the answers for which I hadn’t already taught the vocabulary.  The idea is that if a person is around the language in an uninterrupted manner for long enough and not allowed to use their native language as a crutch, they will kind of learn the target language (TL) by osmosis, or at least have no alternative but to use.  The trouble with this is that there is another alternative: be very frustrated and give up.  If you’re not living in another country, that is an option, and it’s one that people frequently choose.
  • Another school of thought says that they mixing of languages that bilingual people often do, called “code switching,” is bad because it can cause the person to apply the grammar of one language to the other language or to use words that sound the same in both languages but don’t really mean the same thing (false friends or false cognates).

I agree that people need a lot of exposure to the TL and that they do “absorb” some things “in the background of their minds,” as it were.  I also do agree that the long-term goal of language learning to get to a point where you don’t have to code switch to get your point across, unless there is no cultural equivalent for what you want to say.

However, almost the only short-term goal is to make the student feel good about what they can communicate in the TL–yes, even at the expense of correct pronunciation, grammar, and purity of the language.  If that means your child can only say, “Mom, when’s almuerzo (lunch) going to be ready?” instead of saying it all in Spanish, don’t let anybody tell you that’s bad.  I think the best bet–and the one people naturally tend toward–is to weave their new word acquisitions into their existing vocabulary.


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