Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Teaching Children a Second Language - My Language Background

I thought before I went any further into sharing successes and failures in teaching children a second language, I should fill in some background information, about where I'm coming from.

It's tempting to sum my whole experience up with one sentence - In college, I took second year Spanish, four years of German, and one semester of French. But then, what is more important to know, is what I learned from the experience of studying these languages, than the actual languages I studied, but no longer really know.
  • I learned, first of all, that mastering a language, like an instrument, takes time, discipline, and practice.
  • I learned that very little language skill is actually taught during a freshman level university course, at American universities. Case in point, after sitting through, and enjoying, my first year of German, I spent the summer studying one of those Berlitz learn-Spanish-in-hurry type books, and skipped over freshman Spanish altogether (and no, I'm not super bright, just impatient, and occasionally, a little overambitious).
  • Since, anyone who studied a language in High School, was given a pass on the freshman level in university, I have to assume, that very little language learning is going on in American high schools either, if four years of High School language study, amounted to what I learned from Berlitz in one summer.
  • I learned I'm not a huge fan of immersion style teaching, or what I call artificial immersion. What I mean by this, is the type of class, or material, that tries to teach a language by dumping the student into it, in a sink, or swim manner. I've never been in a situation where I've found myself completely surrounded by speakers of a foreign language, so I don't know how I'd do then, but in a classroom setting, it's a frustrating, and time consuming way to learn.
  • I learned that obtaining a beginning level of fluency in a new language is exciting, and opens up an entire new world of literature, music, and entertainment in general.
  • Finally, I learned, that without constant use, language skills fade surprisingly quickly.

So, this is where I'm coming from. I was four years out of university, by the time we had our first son. My German had faded a good deal at that point, but I was optimistic, that with work, I could regain my fluency. And, by starting him off, right from the beginning, give him a huge head start into a second language, too. I had dreams of bilingual children, which morphed into dreams of university ready children, prepared to skip over that first year of language study, or even just children with a strong linguistic base to work from.

While I've pretty well given up on the first dream, the second two, look like they might actually be attainable. Which, I hope to share more about in another post.

It's great to be a homeschooler.


Ticia said...

Sounds like we have similar language backgrounds. Except mine is a smattering of Spanish and Sign Language. Both of them just enough to get myself in real trouble if pressed to speak.

Debbie said...

I look forward to reading more! I haven't given much thought to teaching Selena a second language, I never learned one, and was prohibited in High School to ask to take such a class, that when I got into college I just said forget it. I wouldn't know where to begin, I guess is what I am saying. Short of sign language!

Natalie PlanetSmarty said...

From someone with external point of view, I am shocked to see how little foreign language is taught in US schools and how poorly it's done. Most of my coworkers took Spanish in school and can't speak more than 10 phrases in it. I definitely doesn't want the same fate for my daughter. I can vouch that real immersion for kids works great - we had many examples of families moving to a different language environment and kids picking up minority language in a manner of months. We are seriously considering spending a year in Germany when Anna is in mid school or so - this will be the best way to give her the real exposure and knowledge of German.

Anonymous said...

I'm from the UK and I feel my learning experience with languages is very similar to yours. I think there is a lot based around self study, reading and writing only.

But recently I find myself in Japan teaching assisting in the foreign education classes. I find the way that they study English here is so much better than how I learnt. The teachers always revisit lessons and try to use words and grammars that the students have learnt. They really encourage the students to use as much English as they can (with the teachers or fellow students). They especially have many set expressions that they have to use at certain points in the class, for example, "excuse me, I have a question", "could you check my answers", "I'm sorry, may I go to my locker" and so on. So the students have a lot of experience to use what they have studied.

I feel that they have so many chances to communicate in English and it also boosts their self confidence. I wish that I had studied foreign languages in the same way. (maybe we would feel like we actually learnt something in foreign language classes at school).

Please encourage your children to use their languages! They can become wonderful speakers like my students.