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)

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Languages Benefit US Employees

Two woman in a traditional chalet in the summe...
What will you do if they don’t speak English? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This essay by the VP of Middlebury language programs, Michael Geisler, lays out multiple reasons why learning a language benefits you.  Languages aid cognitive skills, allow access to subtle nuances of a culture, help national security, keep US workers competitive, and prevent loss to the US should “global English” no longer be used as a lingua franca.  He focuses most of his time on the competitiveness of US workers, saying that Americans are now and will continue to be missing out on business opportunities.

First, overseas companies often recruit multi-lingual employees.  As I see it, even in a country like Sweden, where English-education succeeds so broadly, if a worker only spoke English, he or she would not be able to communicate with everyday people in a way that they were comfortable.

Second, assuming that non-English-speaking counterparts will speak English puts strain on the conversation, and hence the relationship.  Speaking English is not easy for non-native speakers.  Geisler writes, “[S]peaking English is not the same as being truly proficient in English. Many non-native speakers of English around the globe speak enough English to get by, but perceive it as a strain and revert to their own language at any opportunity.”  I think that English-speakers who have not worked at conversing in a non-native language do not understand the effort that their interlocutors expend in every conversation.  When I first went to Ukraine–where no one I knew spoke English–I slept 9+ hours per night because talking was exhausting.  I’ve heard English speakers say they don’t have the time or energy to learn the others’ language.  At present the n have to work really hard non-native English speakers bear the burden of communication and would like native English speakers to share the burden.  Geisler also discusses this “etiquette”: not investing in meeting the other person half-way on communication can be insulting.

Third, some non-English speaking-countries are rising on the world economic stage.  I can think of China, of course, and India.  But Brazil and Turkey are gaining market share.  As they grow in importance, speaking those languages rises in value.  Would a Turk rather do business with a Spaniard who speaks Turkish, or an American who only speaks English?  Learning languages will allow entry into new markets now and in the future.

Geisler concludes with difficult questions about the US educational system.  We do not prioritize language education, and what education there is does not always measure up.  He does not offer concrete ways to develop better standards or implement them, and we know that implementing them will be expensive.

I think he makes his case on the importance of languages in education.  So how do we act on Geisler’s imperative in a time of fiscal crisis in US education?  What are ways to help the US emphasize language education, without making huge demands on the strained education budgets?

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.