More young language lovers

How do we help kids love language?
How do we help kids love language?

Last week we got to visit some of our friends, and I discovered another young, aspiring polyglot.  His name is Nicholas (funny that the other young language-lover I blogged about is named Nico, short for Nicholas) and he’s 7 years old.  Since he still wakes up at an ungodly hour, his parents bought him Rosetta Stone Spanish for him to work one while everyone else is sleeping.

But Spanish is boring to him because “everyone else” learns Spanish.  He wants to learn something that not so many people are learning, like Norwegian or Aramaic.  (When I asked him if he prefers Ancient or Modern Aramaic, he said Ancient.)  Like me, he prefers the obscure language.

What resources are there?  I recommended Nico’s favorite website,  Here you can find trivia about 600 or so languages.  The author has created some silly cartoons in various languages.  There is a lot of information about writing systems, too.  Since Youtube is not safe for kids without adult supervision, Omniglot’s videos are nice to have.

I wonder what becomes of American children who love languages.  Fortunately, his dad loves learning smatterings of languages and delving into the uniqueness of various cutlures.  But I don’t know about other kids.  Our society does not offer them many resources or rewards for following their passion.  How often have you seen a child start speaking a non-native language to someone?  Other than heritage speakers, I haven’t seen it.  Does anyone have ideas to help keep Nicholas motivated?

I also read this article from Language magazine, called “From the Mouth of Babes” (Language, Angelika Putintseva,  Ms Putintseva is striving to offer an environment for small children to be exposed to and speaking multiple languages in her WorldSpeak Language Center daycares.  The article states that kids can learn and speak Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian, and English.  The education focuses on relationships and daily interactions rather than drills and exercises–the natural way that children learn languages.  Ms Putintseva eventually hopes to expand this into a K-5 school.

I researched the school a bit, and a Russian-speaking friend of mine visited the daycare. Maybe some of the article may be too good to be true.  The article was written by Ms Putintseva herself, so it may not be as objective as it could be.  The school is not large, around 20 or so students, though I don’t know if those numbers are just for one campus or for both.  I’m not sure if the French and Chinese programs are still running.  Some on-line reviews (take them for what they’re worth) complain about moving teachers around between campuses arbitrarily.  The program thus may not be as successful as it appears.

Assuming that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, I am on the balance happy that this daycare exists because we need places for people to socialize in multiple languages, even if just in pockets.  I’m pleased that someone is trying to create an atmosphere where people can learn languages like this.  I believe that something like this for adults is also necessary.  Groups of multilingual folks exist where they socialize in and teach each other languages, but they are not so well known.  They are a hobby get-together, not a widely-available teaching resource.

What are ways that we can get children more comfortable with a multilingual environment?  even fluent in multiple languages? What are ways we can engage those who are already enthralled with languages?

Photo credit: Julie70 / / CC BY-NC-SA

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Certifying immigrant language teachers

somali language lessons
Somali Language Lessons (Photo credit: sarah sosiak)

Yesterday I began forming my team (which I began to talk about in this post).  I met with many active folks in Somali community and we discussed what sort of language education we thought the community needed.  I realized that the Somali community is excited about language classes for the sake of their children.  (I need to work more on the non-Somali communities.)  Yet Somali language education in the Twin Cities is, according to one Somali elder teacher, in need of CPR.  One problem we have is finding certified teachers: teachers with 1) expert knowledge of Somali language, 2) experience with pedagogy, and 3) teaching certification.

Teaching Somali well requires strong, deep Somali language skills; yet teaching certification requires taking many courses and passing a test in English.  Let’s say you find a potential language teacher who writes poetry, speaks eloquently at community events, and is beloved by children.  But she does not speak English beyond what she needs to ride the bus.  Because of how current law is written, she cannot teach in a public school because she cannot pass a teacher’s exam.

We have a very narrow pool for potential Somali language teachers.  At the moment, we have to pass over qualified monolingual language teachers in favor of bilingual certified teachers.  This cannot produce the best results.

Significantly, the Navajo (or Diné) confronted this problem in Arizona and found a solution, as we can read in this article.  A similar program that currently exists in the state of New Mexico served as precedent for it.  (The Navajo are still working to get an agreement with Utah.)  The assessment tests for language ability, cultural knowledge, and–interestingly–character.  Tribal colleges will administer the test.

I would love to develop a program for Somali language teachers in Minnesota because it will help us find the most qualified teachers, who may or may not know English.  Such a certification process will dignify the knowledge that Somali-speakers possess.  I hope that one day this process could help fast-track teachers of languages when new waves of immigrants and refugees come to Minnesota.

What do you think?  Should immigrant communities be able to work around the standard certification process to qualify their own teachers?  If so, what should this process look like, ideally?  If not, what other ways can we provide quality language education to students?

Team Language-Lover

By “digitalart” (

Language-lovers sit at a strange nexus between extro- and introversion.  On the one hand, we speak languages, and so we need speakers.  We have to extrovert.  On the other hand, we need to study a lot to keep them up.  Study only comes with introversion.  Our paradox lies between our need to study by ourselves to speak with others.  Both extro- and introversion serve our passion.

The joy–the love–of languages works both directions, as well.  Our joy comes when we speak with others.  Part of this joy arises from the delight of the other who sees this foreigner speaking their language.

Our language-study subsists, though, on our foreignness.  When we start a new language, we consign ourselves again to being a foreigner.  We seek out those who are natives to that language.  We fall in love with being an outsider; we no longer seek out staying at home.  Being the perpetual other motivates us.

I realized recently, though, that I enjoy working on a team.  That means everyone working together on a single goal.  Delight comes from working together and the work only succeeds when we see each other as equals.  Teamwork contrasts strongly with my pursuit of languages.

Only working for my own languages no longer satisfies me.  So I’ve been working on education.  I want to provide language education for others.  I do not see enough language students, language schools, or language advocates around me.  As a result, I want to start that change.

To have a real effect requires a team.  Finding language students means talking to teachers, starting language schools requires entrepreneurs, and advocacy requires organization.  I cannot work on my own on this project.  I want to offer Somali-language education as a possibility for schools and others here in the Twin Cities.  I’m building a team to do the work this agenda requires.

I have started building a team, but I’m trying to find the most dedicated people for my vision.  I want people who love languages.  They must understand the inherent worth of learning languages.  Education must also sit at the forefront of their minds.  I need members of team “teach language.”

Is building a team hard for you?  What are ways to build a team?  How do you find people in your area who are passionate about your same passion?  Do you other language-lovers run into the same challenges as I do?

Are English-Only Speakers Squeezed Out?

In the past week I heard two stories about Americans who felt that they were squeezed out of a conversation. I think there is a solution.  Learning a language in both instances could ease tensions and foster empathy.

My friend’s coworker, Amy,* notices that she doesn’t get invited to meetings. This worker collaborates with their office in Israel. She noticed that the Israel office, unfortunately, started scheduling meetings at times when she could not be present. They wanted to hold the meeting in Hebrew, and she doesn’t speak Hebrew. This seemed passive-aggressive. She wants to collaborate with her Israeli colleagues, but they stubbornly insist of excluding her by conducting meetings only in Hebrew and avoiding discussing in English.

One friend, Ahmad,* often does work in China. He enjoys going to China and he likes Chinese people. He finds he has a lot in common with them. Because of putting in time with communicating with non-native English speakers, he has a handle on how to adjust his communication style to fit with the situation.

On occasion he feels marginalized. When he is the only non-Chinese speaker at a meeting, the meeting will lapse into Chinese, and someone will translate the gist of the conversation for him. He knows, though, that he is missing nuances and content that could be valuable for him. Why would they speak Chinese around him when they could just as easily speak in English? Were they trying to push him out of the conversation?

Let me take the Israeli and Chinese point of view for a second. I don’t think the problem is an incompatibility between Americans and Chinese or Israeli people.  Speaking a language is hard, even if one wants to order a croissant after studying French for four years. Understanding the response is even harder. Trying results in painful feelings of inferiority. So experiences the Chinese- and Hebrew-speaker at meetings held in English. Granted, ordering a croissant in English may be easy for them, but collaborating on a project, offering ideas in a positive, nuanced way can easily make them feel stupid when it comes out weird or they can’t fully understand the response of their American counterparts.

These Chinese and Israelis likely are not giving Amy and Ahmad the cold shoulder. They may just be anxious or tired. By learning some Chinese or Hebrew and feeling their pain, Amy and Ahmad would display a desire to sympathize with their colleagues.  The Americans could sympathize with their colleagues’ need to switch out of English, if only to let their brains rest, or to express to each other what they’re really trying to say. The more we English-speakers try to learn others’ language, the more they see us open ourselves to their struggles through sympathy.

Have you felt shut out of a meeting?  Have you managed to make your way back in by learning a language?

* Names have been changed.

Livemocha: I’m the Belle of the Ball!

Image representing Livemocha as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

I started using Livemocha and I have found it very helpful for working on many parts of my language.  This service offers basic language-learning exercises on many languages–and Farsi is one.  It also offers significant interactions with a language-learning community.  I underestimated the latter.

The site works on a complex point system.  For every exercise you complete, you get points.  This feature alone makes it difficult for me to move off the site.  One-fourth of an exercise consists of free-writing exercises, and one-fourth on reading aloud.  You submit these assignments to the community.  As soon as you do, you are asked to respond to assignments in your native language.  You can respond in writing or by voice-recording.  You receive points for these, as well.  I’m not sure yet what points are for, though.

After I turned in my first written and reading assignments, I received so many responses (15-20).  I felt like the belle of the ball!  Then I received responses to my responses to English exercises.  Among these responses were friend requests.  You can submit assignments directly to friends, if you want.  My community of language-learners grew to about 20+ literally overnight.

The comments have helped me.  The comments on my writing assignments are keeping me honest.  One of the main comments I received on my first writing assignment was to use the Farsi letters.  I was lazy and used the Latin alphabet.  The community is keeping me honest.  Then they give me tips on style.  They write to me in Farsi!  Yikes!  I don’t understand each of the tips, but having a few written rules to follow will be good.  The comments on my reading have filled in some of the words that I have a hard time pronouncing.  Some responders write me a transcription in Latin letters, and some record themselves reading the passages aloud.  Both methods help.

The amount of resources that Livemocha offers astounds me.  The system is set up so that it is to everyone’s advantage to help one another out.  I have to limit my time on there, because receiving and giving help is so easy.  I will for sure alter my calendar to include more Livemocha time.  Also, the Seattle Public Library offers free Gold Key (premium) membership.  It’s not working at the moment, though.  I’m not sure what other content I will get–or where the time will come from to take advantage of it.

Livemocha does not help very much in learning vocabulary.  The reading assignments do not necessarily use words that I know.  That’s ok–the community makes me learn them.  I still love my flash cards and Pimsleur mp3’s.