Tag Archives: kids

How to Tackle Foreign Language

5 Oct

Source: Wouter Verhelts

Almost everyone I meet wants their child to learn a foreign language.  The reasons are different: Some people think it will improve their children’s job prospects, others that it will make their child more cultured or empathetic. Still others want their kids to be prepared for the mission field.

I’ve been on various ends of the “language business” for a long time, starting with teaching foreign students and refugees English, teaching English and Spanish to corporate ex-pats and their families, proofreading, translating, private tutoring…you name it.  I’ve also been a student of a number of languages, both formally and on my own, including Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Arabic, and Farsi.  (That does not mean I know them all!)  My experiences from these various vantage points have given me some strong and sometimes unconventional ideas about how to go about teaching or learning a foreign language successfully.  I’ve been teaching French for our co-op, a new experience for me.  I’m going to post about what we’ve been learning, both because I think it’s of general interest and because our co-op members need a place to access all the new things we’ve been learning.  That’s got me thinking about how to approach foreign language in general, so I’m going to post a little series with tips on how to be successful at learning or teaching a language.

Why? Why Not?

Foreign languages are one of those areas that easily fall prey to trends, so it’s important to evaluate what your reasons really are.  Here are some bad reasons:

  • All the other kids are learning it
  • It’s the latest thing
  • You think it’s very posh to know XYZ language
  • YOU wish you had learned it, but at least you can live vicariously
  • You did learn it, and goshdarnit, your child will too (This does not apply if the language in question is your or your parents’ native language!)

Here’s the best reason of all: your child likes it.

Now, not every child shows an aptitude for foreign languages, and he or she may not like the one you think is really important or beautiful to learn.  But if you allow them to be exposed to several languages in their early years, or if you follow their lead on what cultures they show an interest in, they may just realize that there is a language out there for themThey may have hated your idea of learning French, but Japan and everything related to it may fascinate them.

Gotta Love It

The truth is that emotion is SUCH a powerful factor in learning a language well.  You really have to have either positive feelings about the “target culture” or a very strong practical motivation to learn the language (such as getting by on a daily basis or caring deeply about someone who speaks that language).  So, while you may think French is great (and therefore you might be capable of learning French very well), your son or daughter may have little potential to do well in French and all the possibility in the world of becoming natively fluent in Japanese because he or she loves it so much!    When it comes to foreign language, it really is better to learn the “wrong” language like the back of your hand than the “right” one very poorly.

The exceptions to this are Latin and Greek because we learn them largely to train our minds in logic and because they unlock clues of the English language.  However, I strongly believe it’s important to learn at least one living language in addition to Latin or Greek–and even Latin and Greek can be made exciting and relevant.

There’s no accounting for why some people seem intrinsically fascinated with a particular foreign culture.  For me, it was Latin America, and it began when I was 12 years old for 2 reasons:

  1. I knew a girl my age who knew no English and I wanted to talk to her.
  2. I went on a mission trip to Mexico, for which I also had to take a short course in Spanish.

Most of my Spanish is self-taught, though several college courses and living with my Spanish-speaking husband helped me polish it.  The reason I was able to achieve near-native fluency without ever having lived in a Spanish-speaking country is that I live in a place where I have access to the language and, more importantly, I sought it out relentlessly because I was so interested in it.  Today, with Skype, Youtube, online language exchanges, and the ever-growing influence of internationalism in our backyards, it’s easier than ever to do this in more places, even if you don’t live in a large city.

Plan of Attack

You may be daunted at the thought of teaching your kids a foreign language, especially if you haven’t yet learned one very well.  You needn’t be!  Just keep in mind that the goals are communicating and enjoying–not necessarily correctness–and that whatever you teach them is gravy.  Sadly, schools routinely turn out students that have studied a language for 2+ years but can barely formulate a “Where is the bathroom?” when they need one.  Why is that?  You have the advantage of a built-in community that is together for much of the time and completes daily tasks together.  You have the opportunity to create a much more organic language-learning experience than a classroom can provide.  Go for it!

Be sure to check back soon for 11 specific tips, straight from the front lines, on how to be successful in teaching your kids a foreign language!  Have any experiences? questions? tips of your own to share?  By all means, leave them in the comments.  I’d love to hear from you!


To the Seashore We Will Go

29 Sep

Whoever said learning can’t be fun never took six first-graders to the beach.  What better way to find out about about not only the creatures of the coast, but also the coast itself, than by taking kids there and showing it to them?

That’s what I was up to Friday as I hosted our second mini-coop meeting/science club.  This was something that came about at the end of last school year as a way to hold on to the relationships that Mustard Seed had formed, as well as to do some of the learning activities that just aren’t as much fun by yourself.  Like putting on plays or playing catch at recess.  See what I mean?  Not as much fun by yourself.

At the same time, I’m sort of commitment-phobic (to misuse a term I so often get annoyed with myself), so I didn’t want to bind myself to a full-fledged weekly co-op where I would be responsible for teaching one of the subjects every week.  In fact, my throat just closed a little even typing that.  Instead, we’re doing a “mini-coop”.  We meet every other Friday, more or less, and alternate covering history and science only.  Each family hosts 5 meetings per year, so it’s a good way to spread the burden–I mean, joy–of preparing all the activities.

Since all the families are studying biology this year, I thought that as hostess for the first science meeting, I’d kick it off with a field trip to Galveston Island State Park.  It’s easy to go to the beach a hundred times and not ever pay attention to the wildlife that lurks just under the surface or the important landscape, so I tried to open the kids’ eyes to the nuances in habitat, the important environmental functions the island serves, and the teeming fauna to be found if one knows where to look.

Galveston is a long, skinny barrier island that’s basically a glorified sandbar.  It’s situated just a short way off the mainland, and the bay between the island and the mainland is an important estuary environment that serves as a spawning ground for lots of species.  First on the agenda was a visit to the Gulf side of the island.  Here we learned that there are actually 3 different sub-habitats: the dunes, the surf line and the subtidal (the area that’s in the water).  We talked about why the dunes are important (so the island doesn’t erode) and the fact that different grasses and plants hold the dunes together with their roots.

We discussed the five different kinds of vertebrates, especially going over the specific characteristics of mammals and fish.  The kids named some sea animals, and we talked about what kind of animals they are.  We discussed the fact that not only fish live in and around the sea; there are also birds (herons, sea gulls, pelicans), reptiles (sea turtles in the water and rattlesnakes on the dunes), and mammals (whales and dolphins; and there are other animals that have a shell on the outside instead of a backbone (crabs and clams).

We dug unsuccessfully for ghost crabs, but they came out and paid us a visit later in the evening.

We found these guys right at the surf line and put them in a bucket to observe.  After they got over their shyness, it was fascinating to watch them put out a little gelatinous foot and squirm around the thin layer of sand in the bottom.  When we put them back on the ground, they quickly wiggled their way back under it.

The gulls were ubiquitous and eagerly relieved one of the kids of his lunch.  In the evening, sandpipers came out as well and scurried across the beach.  We learned that the more birds you see overhead, the more critters you can be sure to find under the sand and in the water, since birds come out to feed on them.

One word got thrown around a lot that day: sargasso.  Many beaches have seaweed.  In Galveston there is sargasso.  It floats all the way from the Sargasso Sea between the West Indies and the Azores.  It also plays a big role in preventing erosion, and it hosts a variety of life as well, while it’s in the water.  After it hits the beach, most of its residents jump ship, so it’s best to catch it in a bucket fresh from the water if you want to inspect them.

Next up was a short drive over to the bay side of the island, where calm saltwater marshes dominate the landscape.  Tall cordgrass flanks the shallow water.  Off in the distance, large herons and brown pelicans glide low, looking for a meal.  We sidled up to the marsh’s edge and were immediately rewarded with a find of lots of hermit crabs.  The kids had fun picking them up and peeking at them inside their shells.

Peeking at a hermit crab

A fisherman standing nearby was kind enough to point out the fiddler crab holes in the bank nearby.  The balls of dirt are made by the crabs.  The bigger the ball, the bigger the crab.

Fiddler crabs make holes in the banks of salt marshes, leaving large dirt balls outside (shown at center).

He also let me take a picture of the sheepshead fish that he had caught and was just about to throw back.

Sheepshead fish caught by a fisherman and about to be released

Other cool discoveries were some bird tracks and a pair of disembodied crab pinchers.

Who's tracks could these be? A heron? A spoonbill?

Examining a find

To wrap up the day, we made two models to help the kids understand the concept of an estuary.  We colored one bottle of water blue and another yellow.  I had a volunteer add lots of salt to the blue bottle to represent the salt water coming from the ocean.  The yellow was to represent the fresh water coming from the rivers and runoff from the mainland.  Then we passed the bottle around and the kids mixed the yellow fresh water and the blue salt water, yielding green estuary water.

Mixing "salt water" and "fresh water" in our model estuary

For the next demonstration, we poured water down a baking pan stood up at an angle.  Of course, the water reached the bottom side quickly.  This was to show what would happen with water if there wasn’t an estuary.  Then the kids filled the pan with some damp sand mixed with sargasso and some shells.  (Grass and sticks are another option.)  Then we poured the water down the pan again, but this time, it took the water longer to get to the bottom side, representing the fact that an estuary slows water’s flow into the ocean.

Demonstrating the purifying function of an estuary

Finally, we sprinkled some pepper up near the top of the pan to represent pollutants that might be in the water.  Then we poured the water in one last time, and the kids were able to observe that most of the pepper got trapped among the sargasso and shells and didn’t make it to the bottom of the pan.  This demonstrated how the estuary acts to filter out pollutants and keep them from reaching the ocean.

Of course, mixed in with all of this, there was much giggling and frolicking in the waves, running along the beach and digging sand holes.  (Socialization and physical education: check!)  Did the kids learn something about the flora and fauna of Galveston?  I think so.  But if nothing more, we made a fun memory with friends at the beach and they learned to love playing in nature, seeking out all its curiosities, and enjoying it for what it is.  The kinds of things that will inspire them to keep learning about Creation as they grow older.

Spanish Lesson: La granja

17 Jul

The other day, our family and friends took us to a really neat restaurant outside of Bogotá, on the savannah, called La Granja (GRAN-ha), which means The Farm. The food was typical Colombian stuff: meat, potatoes, arepas, chorizo.  It was all outdoors in various pavillions, with a mini-golf course in the center and lots of craft workshops for kids.  Perhaps best of all, there was a small menagerie.  Perfect for our first Spanish lesson, I thought!

Let’s start with some birds:

Pavo or pisco

This pavo isn’t likely to end up as Thanksgiving dinner, since Colombians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  At La Granja, I was also told these birds are called piscos in this area.

Un pavo real y un gallo

If the last guy was a just a regular, old pavo, this peacock is a pavo real (a royal turkey).  He’s got his gander up because this gallo has hopped into his pen.


This avestruz may be too heavy to fly, but I hear it can run very fast.  With that big beak, I’m sure it can defend itself well, too.  We admired it from a distance!

Una oveja blanca

Can you tell what this is?  It was trying to take a siesta, so it was hard to get a good picture.  It’s an oveja, a sheep!  La Granja had them in two colors.  This one’s color is blanca.

Una oveja negra

This oveja is negra, so you would say oveja negra, since the color of something always come after the word, in Spanish.  So then, how would you say “white sheep”?

Una vaca

Mustard Seed got a big kick out of this vaca.  Now you know how to tell what colors the vaca is.  Give it a try!

That’s right, blanca y negra!

Una cabra. What color is it?

This cabra had to be escorted back to his own pen, as he had escaped to go visit the lady cabras.

Un burro

This little burro is a hard worker, carrying loads for people and giving them rides.  When you say his name, be sure sure to roll your “rr”, kind of the way a cat sounds when it purrs.  The “u” in his name sounds like “oo” as in the word “coo”, not as in the word “book”!

Una llama

I guess it wouldn’t be a true South American farm without one of these, a llama.  In Spanish,  the letters “ll” make the sound “y”, so it sounds to an English speaker as if it should be spelled yama*.  Have you ever read the book Llamas in Pajamas?  I recommend it highly.  Fortunately, in Spanish the phrase still rhymes, because pajamas is piyamas, so it would be Llamas en piyamas!  I guess this llama forgot his!

Show What You Know

If you’d like to practice your new Spanish words, you can think up a story about these furry and feathery friends.  You can write it down or narrate it to your mom and dad and then draw some pictures to go with it.  As you make up your story, be sure to use the Spanish words for the animals!

This little song is another fun way to practice what you’ve learned.  It’s basically Old McDonald Had a Farm in Spanish.  The lyrics go like this:

En la granja de mi tío


Hay tres (3) vacas que hacen moo


Con la vaca aquí

La vaca allá

Un moo aquí

Un moo allá

Moo, moo, moo, moo

All the other verses are the same with their animals’ sounds.

Verse 2: tres (3) gatos

Verse 3: tres  (3) patos

Verse 4: tres (3) cabras

Verse 5: tres (3) perros