It’s Greek to Me

by |

“Parlez vous Francais?” “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” “ÀHabla Espanol?” If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, you probably have a few opinions about the value of learning a second language. If you can’t, you may be like me, wondering what went wrong in those accumulated five years of Spanish classes, or like many others who wish they’d had or taken the opportunity to learn.

I knew I wasn’t fluent. I squeezed by my two years of collegiate foreign language requirements with B’s, C’s and D’s. On my honeymoon in Cancun, I found myself smiling and pointing a lot, but I deferred to my husband as is fitting for the bride, and we made out just fine. It left me wondering why did I not retain enough from those years of lessons to carry on a conversation? And, more perplexing, why can I take a page of Spanish text and translate it nearly perfectly, aloud with accent, and yet cannot compose a sentence? Did I not apply myself? Or does my husband have a natural propensity I lack?

HOW WE LEARN LANGUAGES

Metro school principal Adler A. Beene had similar questions eight years ago when he and a team of teachers began a K – 12 language program at Buena Vista Magnet School. At the Paidaeia school, the teaching philosophy includes involving children in active learning at every available opportunity.

In very simple terms, teachers don’t say it if they can show it, and don’t show it if they can let the students experience it hands on. So it was only natural that Adler and his team would develop a program in which students would learn a new language (Spanish) in a very hands-on manner. What they discovered is that this approach was both interesting to the students and uniquely effective in helping the students retain what they had learned.

“We utilize the touch-response method when possible because it enables the students to demonstrate – to act out the language,” says Adler. This true-to-life learning style, used frequently by kindergarten teachers, helps the children make necessary associations between words and their definitions without rote memorization. The style also incorporates the use of music, interactive play and drama.

“It’s helpful to incorporate multiple pneumonic devices when teaching, and even more so when teaching languages,” says Adler. Children, like adults, retain information better when employing more than just the memory functions of the brain in learning. Interestingly, Adler says that children entering their school at a later age with no previous foreign language classes seem to have an easier transition into learning a new language than students in other traditional foreign language programs.

CREATING THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT

Rebecca Wheeler, educational assistant at Smyrna Primary School, had similar success teaching foreign language to a group of 95 kindergartners at a pilot program in a school she worked in. “We created our own curriculum, mimicking what the children were learning in regular instruction.” If Wheeler’s students were studying colors, she taught them colors in Spanish at the same time.

Wheeler found that the student’s comprehension was high. She also utilized music and drama to enhance comprehension. “When you learn a rhythmic or musical pattern, it puts a blueprint in a different part of the brain – that’s why with stroke victims medical professionals incorporate music as they begin the reteaching process,” she says.

Wheeler believes that everyone has the capacity to learn languages, but that the window of learning opportunity can be squelched by fear of failure, ineffective teaching styles or by lack of support and encouragement from family. She says that creating an environment where the children can develop the desire and confidence to become life-long learners was a number-one priority.

“I want the children to know that there are so many opportunities today to learn anything they want to,” says Wheeler, “more opportunities than ever before, and that all they have to do is stand up and ask.” She also believes that learning languages increases social and cultural awareness and inspires a basic desire to reach one’s potential in life.

So what do you do if your child has an interest in other languages, but is not involved in a program of this nature? Wheeler, who was an exchange student in her teen years, gives the following advice, “Some believe that total immersion is necessary to fully develop language – like putting your children in a day care where the language is spoken, or visiting a country, but any parent can start today by going to the library and checking out the excellent books and tapes that are there.” Wheeler says even parents who don’t speak a foreign language can learn alongside their children with these resources. She adds, “All it takes is to begin.”

Barbara Dorris is a freelance writer and mother of two.


Television

“Amigos” – WNPT-TV, Channel 8, Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m.
“First Steps In Language” – WNPT-TV, Channel 8, Wednesdays at 10:45 a.m.

Video

PBS provides programming through “Tape-Ahead” days each week. This month, you can tape “TOP! En Espanol” on Feb. 5 and 6 at 11:00 a.m.
In May, “First Steps In Language” will air with the following schedule:

  • May 24: 11:00 a.m., “First Steps En Espanol”
  • May 25: 11:00 a.m., “First Steps En Espanol”, 11:30 a.m., “First Steps In Français”
  • May 26: 11:00 a.m., “First Steps In Français”

Visit www.wnpt.net for more tape-ahead schedules and schedules for cable channels providing additional programming.

Audiocassette

Teach Me French: A Musical Journey Through the Day (Also available in Russian, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Japanese) by Judy Mahoney. Available online through www.amazon.com for $11.16, and through many local libraries.

Websites and Newsgroups

www.wnpt.net – Educational Services menu provides schedules for foreign language programs and “tape-ahead” dates.

www.actfl.org – Geared toward educators, this academic site provides articles on the latest teaching methods, as well as sample curriculum and performance guidelines for K – 12.
Signs of Learning Readiness

  • Using words from other languages or speaking with accent.
  • Making up languages in play.
  • Asking questions about languages or cultures different from their own.
  • Reading or watching programming about a specific country or culture.

Your child might benefit from the additional stimulation of learning a language if he:

  • Completes homework assignments easily and seems bored with play routines.
  • Is a gifted writer or reader and excels in most academic areas.
  • Is not necessarily excelling in school, but seems bored and distracted with the workload.

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