Teaching Kids a Second Language
There is great interest in this country in teaching little kids a second language. As a learning tool, I completely agree that a second language stimulates neural pathways and is an excellent mind strengthening activity. Learning a new language forces the brain to think in new directions. It gives us invaluable insight into other cultures. Languages have a sociological impact beyond simply communication. The Japanese language, for instance, is full of respect words and honorific attachments. The language is a reflection of the culture, and it’s impossible to learn one without learning something of the other. So learning them is a cultural experience as much as it is a practical exercise. Since teaching languages is much more than syntax it stands to reason that our efforts, with that language, should deal with other, more cultural, encounters also. With any learning activity we should know why we’re studying it. Is there a good reason, or are we just trying to appear educated to look good for the neighbors? There is no right age to start a language either. Anybody can learn, and it doesn’t matter the age.
Need to Know
Why should I learn Quechua? I shouldn’t. I don’t know anybody that I need to communicate with in that language. There is no business being done in that language. I’m not an anthropologist. I have no need to know the language; and, therefore, I shouldn’t learn it. Do I need to know Spanish? Yes, I do. My wife is Mexican and we visit Mexico on occasion to see her family. There are also many Spanish speakers here in the US. There will be many occasions where I’ll put the language to good use. Kids should not be subjected to weird and quirky languages in some strained attempt to make them more lettered. A practical reason for learning a language is always necessary if interest in that language is to be maintained. There was a time that I studied Russian. I quit studying it because I woke up one day and realized I have no need for it. Kids should be shown the practical implications of the language before they even start. They have to know it’s not going to be effort wasted.
Age to Begin
I am not one who says kids need to be bilingual from the start. It is my preference that kids become comfortable in their own, native, language before trying to learn a new one. A lot of people want their kids to learn languages early because they believe children have more malleable brains. I don’t believe that necessarily has to be true. I think anybody can learn anything at any age. Most people close their minds as they get older, but that doesn’t have to be the case; it’s a choice. I’ve never found languages daunting or difficult. They can be learned at any age with equal fluency. The trick is to keep an open mind and allow oneself to be taken by the language. My wife learned English in her 20′s and she’s perfectly fluent now. There is no rush to start, and parents don’t need to feel guilty, like they’ve deprived their kids, if they haven’t started a second language yet. No age is too old to learn.
All learning should be fun whether it’s math or Spanish. Books and grammar exercises are not fun. Kids will quickly lose interest in a language if they see it as rote learning. But, if they are given real world application then the process doesn’t seem so much like learning. I think the best way to make learning a language bearable is for everybody to learn it at the same time. I started teaching myself Japanese last year. I bought a dozen or so books and did the Rosetta Stone program on my computer, but it only became really fun when I convinced my wife to start learning, too. Once we started learning it then the kids wanted to learn. Now we’re all learning Japanese. It’s not class, it’s just family time. Kids learn better when the learning becomes a family experience.
My kids are using the Rosetta Stone program for both Japanese and Spanish. It’s a wonderful tool for anybody, including kids. It has no books and no memorization, and it doesn’t feel anything like school. Check it out here. We put up sticky notes all over the house so the kids can learn the names of common objects. And, like I said before, we all practice together so the kids can see that learning isn’t just for kids, that it’s a lifelong pursuit. The best tool for learning languages is immersion. Rosetta Stone is the closest thing there is, short of going to the proper country, to being immersed in a language. It does, though, take a dedicated effort on a daily basis to make progress. I have also heard really good things about this program called Muzzy from the BBC, but I have not tried it.
We are lucky to live in a country where there are so many ethnicities. Taking a family holiday to a foreign country is not always possible for some folks. The alternative is to take advantage of what the US has to offer. It sounds racist to say, but it’s true that Spanish is as easy as walking out one’s door to talk to the gardener. Most big cities have China towns. In Denver we actually have a Japan town. When I lived in Mexico I saw no such opportunities for multi-cultural interaction. They are at a severe disadvantage for having those sorts of experiences because of their somewhat homogeneous society (although there are many indigenous populations that consider themselves separate). We should take advantage of what we’ve got because it’s one of the things that make us better than many other countries in the world.
There are people who believe that we should be an English only country. Of course we should all be able to speak a common language, and that language is English. But, we should not discard the greatest asset the US has going for it. Its multi-cultural roots. Languages are great for kids just as they are great for adults, and learning languages gives us insight into other cultures. Families should chose a language to learn together so that everybody can benefit and have fun doing it. The only way to really appreciate a language is to use it in the real world. Going to a foreign country is ideal. But, where that is not possible, there are plenty of cultural experiences right here in our back yard. We have a huge advantage over other countries, and I think it’s a shame that we don’t take more advantage of it. Everybody should learn another language, not so we can impress people, so that we can use that language for our benefit and learn something in the process.