Tag Archives: lessons

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!

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