Teaching young language-lovers

How can we teach young language-lovers?
How can we teach young language-lovers?

Last weekend I had a great conversation over Skype with my friend’s language-loving son.  Nico is 7, lives in Boston, and loves languages.  We talked so I could encourage his learning as a fellow language-lover.

He spends hours surfing the website Omniglot, when his parents let him, so he knows quite a bit.  When I told him I’m learning Farsi and Somali, he knew exactly what I was talking about.  He even started talking about the Hamitic language family to which Somali belongs.

He has some specific, well-researched interests of his own.  Dying languages fascinate him, and he’s especially interested in Austronesian and Mayan languages.  He also really likes “looping” writing systems, especially Burmese.  When I suggested the writing systems of Sinhalese and Georgian, he mentioned that he likes Armenian writing.  You can see how much this boy knows; my kids have grown up around me (they’re 10 and 12) and they were amazed.  I’ve always been a language nut, but I didn’t know this much till I was 13 at least.

Nico’s parents are not much into languages, but they are looking for ways to engage his interests more broadly, so I was brainstorming together with them.  Here are some things we came up with:

  • Volunteering to work with a refugee family;
  • Attending local ethnic festivals;
  • Taking language classes for children;
  • Visiting language sites, similar to Omniglot.  We found globalrecordings.net, a Christian missionary site that tells stories in various, very obscure languages (like Tzotzil, a Central American language that Nico happens to be interested in).  Nico knows these basic Bible stories, so he enjoys the familiarity.

I ran out of ideas, though.  What means are there for teaching languages to a kid who is just learning how to read and write his native language, and who is living in a monolingual English home?  Our culture does not have easily-accessible means.  If a child wants to learn English, the US and state governments offer many programs; if a child wants to learn a language besides English, the child is on his or her own with very few resources.  For example, in my area the Minneapolis Public Schools only teach languages in two out of all of the elementary schools in the district, and one of them is a French immersion school.

At the end of the conversation with Nico, I wanted to challenge him to think more broadly about why we learn languages; I told him about the responsibility the love of languages brings.  If someone has a talent of any kind, in my opinion, it is so that he or she can serve those who need help.  People who know languages have a duty to help people in our communities who do not know English well.  We can relieve a bit of their burden of always having to communicate in English and we can help make them feel a little more at home.  Learning languages, while fun in and of itself for us language-lovers, comes with the imperative of using languages to serve others.

What would you suggest for a kid who wants to learn languages, but needs to go outside of his family to do so?  What are ways that a kid can help and serve others with languages?  I would love to hear your input–I will pass it on to Nico.  I look forward to talking to him again.  Please “Like” this post if you think we should offer more language opportunities to our young people!

(Photo credit: DVIDSHUB / Foter.com / CC BY)

17 thoughts on “Teaching young language-lovers

  1. This little Nico is quite remarkable! I’m amazed by his knowledge and thirst for dying languages. I agree with you that we need MANY, MANY more immersion schools in the United States. Being from Switzerland, I find it appalling that I have to pay $15,000 a year for private school for my daughter to become bilingual. The U.S. could so easily do what Switzerland does with French and German and offer bilingual English-Spanish immersion schools in every public school. It would provide an immense advantage to our children and help them open up their mind towards the world at large.

    I also agree that each of us who speak several languages have a duty to help those who have difficulties expressing themselves.

    Lastly, the suggestion I have for Nico’s parents is to enroll him on Livemocha.com and to get him a live tutor in one of the languages that interest him the most. It’s a great program that is opening doors for kids like Nico who come from a monolingual family, but who have a desire to learn foreign languages. Check it out!

    Thanks for writing. I always look forward to reading your posts!


  2. Thank you, Valerie, for your kind words. I want my kids to be bilingual, and I don’t have $15k to spend on school for each. So I don’t know what to do. I’m pushing here for schools to offer languages spoken in our community (as I’ve mentioned in other posts), but those classes are designed for “heritage speakers.” It’s a bad, artificial distinction between “second language” and “heritage” learners. All it means is how much passive knowledge the kid comes in with. We just don’t have teachers who can teach these languages from scratch.

    I haven’t looked at Livemocha’s live tutors yet. I’ve worked on and off with that site in the past, but the languages were too obscure for live tutors.


  3. A while ago, I read an article about a German family (they were well-travelled polyglots), who sent their son, aged 7, to France for a year on a student exchange. They got a lot of flak for doing this from some quarters, because of the boy being so young, but he had really wanted to go, and he returned home fluent in French, and not all that traumatised, according to the article.
    Maybe sometimes, if a child is that talented and showing a persistent interest in something, it’s worth making an unusual decision and maybe sending them off somewhere. Maybe there’s a summer-camp-type thing focused on learning languages? Many communities, e.g. in areas with a high percentage of Chinese or Russian immigrants, also have Sunday schools where their children are taught to read and write in their parents’ native tongue. Some may accept an interested infiltrator…?


  4. Wow, he sounds amazing. I remember when I was a kid I had pen-friends all around the world. They wrote to me in English, and I wrote to them in their languages – pen in one hand, textbooks and dictionaries in the other. It was very motivating to get a reply and realize that I had been understood! Writing letters in the language he’s learning and making friends around the same age might be good for him!


  5. Joel Hanson

    Hi Rich, I wish you could speak to my brother about this topic. All 4 of his children are bilingual and speak Spanish fluently. He basically only speaks Spanish in the home to them. You should see the funny looks people give his family when they are out and people hear a bunch of little blondies conversing with their white dad in Spanish. I do “like” this post, but see no where on the email to signify a “like” status. I will check in with you this evening. Take care.

    Joel Hanson Intermediary 653353rd Ave. NE Seattle, WA 98115 http://www.hansoncomcap.com/ phone 206.300.3379



    1. Sorry! I just found your comment in spam, unfortunately. I think that’s so cool about your brother’s family. He’s so dedicated to teaching language. How sad that only brown people are expected to speak Spanish in this country!

      To “like” the post, you’ll have to sign in, I think.


    1. I think you’re right. Boston, however, is full of many languages, including dying ones. NYC is just a ways down the road, which I heard is the most linguistically diverse place on the planet. Combining online tech with a few “field trips” I think would make for a great experience.


  6. Pingback: Agape Vespers: The church service for language-lovers | Loving Language

  7. Pingback: Focus and endurance: Long-term motivation for learning languages | Loving Language

  8. Pingback: More young language lovers | Loving Language

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