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Learn a Living Language!

By Howard and Susan Richman
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #34, 2000.

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Howard and Susan Richman


My 12-year-old daughter Hannah was reading The Little Princess a few years back, when she called out to me with excitement, "Mommy, I can understand the French parts completely!" Little snips of French dialogue fill the novel, as the main character is fluent in the language, indeed much better than her English boarding school teacher.

Then last year Hannah was reading Jane Eyre and had the same experience - all the little French conversations between Jane and her young student and the French maid were perfectly clear to her, and made reading this complex work that much more accessible. It made me see the value of learning another language in a new light, and made me see how language study can help us in ways we may never have expected.

Sometimes when I'm reading in homeschooling magazines or books, especially those purporting to advocate a classical approach or a program for gifted kids, foreign languages seems to mean one thing only: Latin. Now, Latin is fine, and one day, who knows, I may take it up myself. It would indeed be nifty to understand the many Latin phrases tossed into so many books, and I like learning about the surprising and useful Latin roots of our language as much as the next homeschool mom. But I also like to help my kids learn about living languages, ones that are really spoken, that grow and change, languages that people around the world really use to communicate today, languages that are part of a culture and a different place in the world from where we live. I like to help my kids meet people that speak these languages. I like watching movies with them in these languages. I like helping them write to penpals in their new language. I like finding current websites that use the language to really communicate with the world. And I just don't think you can quite do all this with Latin. I don't think homeschoolers should feel they've "done" languages until they've also learned something about a living language. Languages are not just grammar systems and vocabulary and discipline for the mind - they are living ways to communicate with others.

I used to think, in our early years of studying French at home, that my kids felt at times that this foreign language business was just some sort of huge artificial invention carefully planned to stymie them. What a revelation for them to travel to Montreal and see this language come out of the books and emerge before them as a living tool for thinking and being. Or to go to France for one day during our trip to England years ago and see how not only the language changed entirely when we crossed the channel, but the way the houses were built changed too. Suddenly there were outdoor cafes everywhere, with very different foods. It was a new culture, not just a new language code, that we were meeting.

Studying French gave us the motivation to think about traveling to both France and Quebec in the first place. Learning a living language made us seek out these travel opportunities. It later helped our daughter Molly, not quite 15 at the time, to travel solo to France to stay with her French penpal's family for 6 weeks, and to let us meet this wonderful family when they traveled here also. Studying French helped us get to know some lovely older French people who took part in monthly Alliance Francaise meetings, introduced us to a wonderful French college professor when we took the annual National French Exam, and led Molly to take both an informal Saturday morning French conversation class and next semester an advanced college course for juniors and seniors at the University of Pittsburgh.

Studying French has also helped Molly and Hannah to have some delightful memories of French summer camps held right here in Pennsylvania for American kids, where they've learned songs, played French games, met native speakers from Haiti, Belgium, Tunisia, and France, and developed their listening and speaking abilities beyond what we could have at home. Some of our favorite shared movies are French ones; there is just nothing like watching Cyrano de Bergerac and being able to follow along without always looking at the subtitles. Reading The Little Prince in the original French is so much better than a translation, and it's just the beginning of having a whole new literature open up before us - to discover de Maupassant's stories in the original French, to memorize simple poems by Victor Hugo, to make our way through some of La Fontaine's Fables . . . . It's added to our lives, and given us a window into a larger world.

No doubt about it, learning a language certainly helps with getting into college and even many special summer programs for high school students. Our son Jesse would not have been able to even apply for the full scholarship Pennsylvania Governor's School for International Studies after his 11th grade year if he hadn't had a strong foreign language program already at home. At this high school summer program all the students learned Japanese, and they wanted to be sure that everyone had some familiarity with learning languages before they came. When Jesse a few years later took part in the Semester at Sea around-the-world study program while in college, his Japanese learning helped him really communicate with the family he stayed with for four days in Kobe. French came in handy in Vietnam and Morocco. Languages truly open doors.

One more plus: learning a new tongue now will also help your kids be able to introduce languages to their own children later on. If you opt to not offer languages at home, chances are they won't have any background to fall back on when they might be teaching their own kids. They'll be left feeling that languages are just "too hard" to attempt. It's up to you to show them that it's not.

Choosing a Language

Many homeschooling parents worry about what language to teach their kids. Should we opt for Spanish, because it seems so useful right in our own country, and we can attend a Spanish-speaking church right in a nearby city? Or what about Polish, since a missions trip is planned for Poland later in the summer? Or Japanese or Chinese for future business dealings with the Far East?

I've known families to stew over this decision for several years, wasting valuable time that could have been spent actually learning something. I've also seen families let the kids decide - and the child decides invariably on an odd language that the parents know nothing about, and little progress is made.

My own personal rule of thumb on choosing which foreign language to study at home is very simple: go with whatever language the mom has some familiarity with, even if it's pretty weak. If dad has the language experience and is really committed to working with the kids for years and years, go with his language.

Since I stumbled through French in school, my kids started out with French, even though my husband's Spanish was much better. If they wanted to tackle Spanish or Japanese later, fine . . . but we'd all start out with French, as it would be easiest for me to help them. I was ready to learn along with them and work to improve my abilities, but I realized my job would be much easier if I had some background to start things off.

There's a lot to be said for the idea of learning how to learn a foreign language; once kids have learned one new language, they'll be more able to teach themselves a second or third one. They'll have the basic idea. Many homeschool groups are now offering language classes, and these might be a terrific idea, but be ready to really help out in between class meetings at home. A once-a-week session isn't going to do it all on its own; kids need a lot more practice than that. If you have some background in the language they're taking their class in, you'll be that much more able to help.

When to Start?

When should parents begin introducing a second language at home? Each of my four kids has started learning French at an earlier age, mostly because they were just naturally listening in on lesson times with the older ones, and not so much because I was gung-ho on having a preschooler speaking another tongue. (I hear baby foreign language classes are big among the yuppie set in big cities - take your 6-monther to a weekly class to learn Spanish or German or Japanese . . . and watch the tuition bills roll in nice and early!) But there is definitely something to be said for starting fairly early with languages, and not just because younger learners are supposed to be more geared for language learning. For one, there is less stress - you realize you have plenty of time here before you need to start worrying if this can count as official "French I" on a high-school-at-home transcript. It's all enrichment, and anything you gain is a plus, plain and simple. For myself, I realized it might just take a good bit of time before I figured out how to do this well . . . I needed time to learn as well as my kids. Starting in the elementary years gave us that time, and gave us time to have fun with the language - learn songs together, read fun kids books together, listen a lot, play around, and make lots of mistakes - all before starting on the formal grammar studies that need to be a part of high-school-level work.

Movies & Talkies

When you start learning a language, keep in mind the wide range of wonderful types of materials now available. Don't stop with just "buying a program" and expecting that one program to do everything. What should you consider?

Audio tapes. Almost everyone knows that to learn a language, you need to listen to it. Audios are a must, and you can barely find a program today that doesn't include audiotapes of dialogues and vocabulary and stories. But did you think about tapes or CD's of songs in the language you're studying? Singing is indeed one of the best ways to gain a feel for a new language, and we've always loved singing in French together. Sometimes I can even go back and point out to my children how they were actually using some "new" grammar concept back in that old song they'd learned years ago. Kids begin to develop an ear for what sounds right in the new language by singing.

Videos. I'm a strong advocate of using videos for learning a language, and not just the 2" video talking heads on some language CD-ROM programs, where the mouths don't exactly move with the voice. Our family loves French in Action, the PBS series developed at Yale University, that develops your language ability by total immersion into a mock soap opera about an American college student traveling in Paris for a summer and getting to know a French family. It's not full of your typical boring dialogues, either, but includes lots of current idioms and slang expressions, funny characters, and even lots of useful insults (only to be used with a sense of humor!). My daughter Molly is now doing the very similar Spanish video series Destinos, and is making fine progress, enjoying watching the tapes with my husband, who lived in Spanish-speaking countries several times while growing up. But videos should also eventually mean watching real movies in the target language. My only caution here is to watch the ratings on the video package carefully, as many foreign language films are a bit racier than American audiences are used to. Many big video stores have sections of foreign films, and it's also worth it to buy at least one new foreign film a year - that way you can watch the same film many times, and grow in your ability to understand it over the years.

When Jesse was recovering from wisdom teeth extraction, he decided to watch a French film (with no subtitles) that his Montreal aunt gave us years ago. "Remember how it used to be that we could understand some of the greetings and a phrase here and there, but not much else, and we found the whole movie really confusing? Well, I just watched it, and now there were only a few phrases I didn't understand, and it's really a pretty good film once you can understand what's happening." I didn't need any other way right then to realize how much he'd learned over the years - this was better than any test available.

Find Real Books!

Don't just stay with textbooks and workbooks or official language programs. Keep your eyes open at second-hand book sales, large bookstores with foreign language sections, and catalogs to find some lively books. My own kids love reading "Asterix" cartoon books in French. Even Jacob, who was my most reluctant and least motivated French student, would laugh over these while swinging in a hammock outside. Check out language magazines too; over the years we've subscribed to a Canadian children's magazine in French, and were given other magazines by francophone friends. We even subscribed to a French high school current events newsletter one year, though today I'm sure it would be much cheaper to get the online version!

There are lots of wonderful stories and books available now in many languages. If you pick first from stories written for much younger children, or simple translations of folktales or Dr. Seuss stories, you'll be fine. Some of our favorite French stories were found in second-hand books, and many of these simple stories have given my kids ideas for little plays to perform at family French nights shared with other homeschooling families, complete with make-shift costumes and props. So keep your eyes open at the next library book sale!

French Nights . . .

I highly recommend organizing something like this too. We'd invite any friends we knew who were also studying French, asking them to bring something to share for a French meal (always yummy, and complete with grape juice served from wine carafes). Then we planned games, plays, songs, poems to recite, a short French movie, and more for the rest of the evening. I was always especially charmed to see these junior-high and high-school kids getting all enthused about simple birthday-partyish games in French. They enjoyed them as much as the six-year-olds, and they always asked for them again and again at later meetings. We'd all aim to speak French as much as possible throughout the evening, especially while eating, and we made sure this was spiced with plenty of friendly laughter, too, so that everyone could get over their nervousness about maybe making goofs.

National Exam

Another way we encouraged solid language learning was to take part in the National French Exam each year. Almost all languages (even Latin and Greek) have annual exam programs for students, and homeschoolers have taken part in almost all of them. These are a great way to feel motivation to really review. These exams were also a big help in getting ready for the SAT II French exams in high school, as the format is very similar - listening, reading, culture, and grammar are stressed in both types of exams.

Eventually you should think about preparing your kids for the foreign language AP exams when they are at the end of their high-school years at home; this can be done and done well. Excellent practice books are available from Barron's, and we even sponsored a trial AP French Language course online this year, taught by a wonderful homeschool mother who now lives in Paris. She's finding that the Internet offers astonishing and varied lessons in authentic language learning.

Speaking of web resources, don't wait until late high school to start exploring the Internet for language learning; younger kids can gain from the many children's language sites too. One place to start to find many fine sites is www.learner.org site, where you can find the language programs available for PBS from Annenberg/CPB, like French in Action and Destinos. You'll find links that will take you into these cultures, helping you explore the broader world of these languages. Molly regularly listened to French news on the Internet last year when she was preparing for AP French Language, which really helped her listening abilities, and Hannah and I have enjoyed reading stories written by French children and playing simple French games.

So, welcome to the new world of active and lively language learning. Explore, traveler - you'll never know where you might end up on this journey!


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