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!
- To be American is to be multilingual (lovinglanguage.wordpress.com)
- Educating students to be global citizens (lovinglanguage.wordpress.com)
- Your Brilliant Baby in Week 11: Raising a Bilingual Child (babyzone.com)
- COLORADO: Language Immersion Charter School Helps Kids (charterpulse.com)