Many parents write in and ask me questions about foreign language learning, and so occasionally the blog will feature a question/answer. Today’s question is “How do I decide what foreign language to teach my child?”
Maybe you are like many parents who know they want to start their child on a second language early but don’t know which to choose. The first thing you should know is that you can’t go wrong. Whatever language you choose, starting your young child on the path to learning a foreign language paves the way for your child to have a good accent, to have the chance of being fluent, and makes it easier for them to learn whatever language they choose to study later on in life. You are giving them the foundation, and they will reap the benefits for a lifetime. A book that is great for introducing your child to the idea that different languages are spoken around the world is Babar’s World Tour, where the French elephant Babar takes his family on a trip around the world and his children learn to say phrases in all the different languages.
To many people, the obvious answer to “which language?” in the U.S. is Spanish since it is spoken by over 34 million people in our country. However, this should not necessarily be the only determining factor in your choice. I find parents are more likely to reinforce the learning if they choose a second language to which at least one of the parents has some connection. If one of the parents is fluent in the language that is obviously an advantage, but is not necessary for the child to pick it up. Many moms write to tell me how fun it was for them to see that their high school Spanish or French came back to them while watching Little Pim (it beats singing “I love you” with Barney). Your child can always choose a different language later on; at this early phase, it’s most important to give them the framework and a sense that learning and speaking a second language can be fun.
For people who want more concrete answers, here are the “official” Little Pim guidelines for choosing a language:
1) Pick a language you like, perhaps have always wanted to speak (even if it’s not the most practical) and that you will enjoy hearing and practicing with your child.
2) Pick a language that you can reinforce easily through native speaking caretakers and or kids, local or international trips, live music and CDs or language classes.
3) Pick a language your partner/spouse/fellow caretakers agree(s) on and make a plan together for how to bring this language into your home through DVDs, music and in person speaking.
4) If your child is old enough (15 months +), try out the different languages and see which one he or she responds to most.
One of my son Emmett’s favorite stuffed animals is a polar bear puppet we named Penny the Polar Bear. Penny, as she likes to be called, is one of my favorites too because she speaks French. I often put her on and talk to Emmett in French in a high “Penny” voice. He always plays along and answers her. So this morning we had a conversation that went something like this “Bonjour Emmett! Comment ca va?” (hello Emmett! How are you?”). Emmett said “très bien” (very good). Then he whispered to me so Penny couldn’t hear, “How do you say the sun is coming up?” I reminded him he knows how to say sun (“le soleil”) and then I taught him “le soleil se lève.” Emmett repeated this phrase back to Penny perfectly. Penny got so excited about the sun coming up that she did a little happy dance and gave him a kiss on the nose.
Engaging your kids in speaking a foreign language through puppets is a great way to make learning new words fun. Kids have an amazing ability to suspend disbelief and will happily delve into a long exchange with a puppet – try it with whatever words you know in Spanish, French, Chinese, or whatever language you are teaching your child, and see the great reactions… Penny says “Bonne Année!” (Happy New Year). Wishing everyone a healthy happy 2009, from our family to yours.
In FRANCE families eat a special dessert at holiday time called Bûche de Noël (pronounced “booche de no-el”) which means “Christmas log”. It’s a very sweet cake, shaped like a log from the fireplace! It’s made of sponge cake and has lots of chocolate icing. Here is a picture:
In MEXICO a big party for children usually includes a Piñata, (pronounced Peenyata, for it has an ñ, not an n), filled with peanuts in the shell, oranges, tangerines, sugar canes, and candy. All the children sing while one child at a time tries to break the Piñata with a stick while he/she is blindfolded.
Although Piñatas started in Italy, today they are a Mexican tradition. Mexican piñatas are usually made out of cardboard and paper mache and decorated with crepe paper.
In CHINA, s
ince the vast majority of the Chinese people are not Christian, the main winter festival is the Chinese New Year, which takes place toward the end of January. Kids decorate by lighting their houses with beautiful paper lanterns. Many Chinese children also hang stockings and await a visit from Santa Claus, whom they call Dun Che Lao Ren (dwyn-chuh-lau-oh-run) which means “Christmas Old Man.” Santa Claus may also be called Lan Khoong-Khoong, “Nice Old Father.”
Make your own lantern:
Emmett has certain words he always remembers in French that he loves to say. One of them is “une pomme.” Whenever we find one he points it out and says excitedly “une pomme!” When he is having trouble remembering new words in French I point to an apple and say what is this in French? He always brightens right up. “Une pomme!” he says proudly. Or sometimes it’s more of a “duh mom, une pomme, of course!” This helps keep learning fun for Emmett, and it’s also a key piece of the Pimsleur Method. My father’s method included many instances of recall affirmation – he’d’ teach you a complex phrase and right after ask if you know how to say “How are you?” Or something easy like that. “Of course I do,” you think and answer with ease. That little surge of confidence enhances your ability to remember the more complex phrases being taught.
Find your own “une pomme” with your kids and remember that affirmation and repetition are key to a child’s learning a new language. And keep it fun!
(Click on Little Pim above for our Word of the Day Coloring Pages, another way to make language learning fun and interactive!)
On Thanksgiving morning I woke up to an email from my mother-in-law that said “My friend Elaine just read in a gossip magazine that Angelina Jolie is using Little Pim!” Quoi? I confirmed with my husband that his family didn’t have some quirky Thanksgiving tradition of fooling the kids… and since they don’t… I did a Google search on Angelina, on Brangelina on everything to do with them and their kids, but no mention of Little Pim.
Fast forward to me at the news stand on Broadway, madly leafing through every gossip magazine available – under the scowling gaze of the seller. I found it! There in Us Weekly’s “Heide and Spencer Elope” issue was a picture of Angelina Jolie holding Shiloh with the caption “Angelina Jolie uses Little Pim to teach Shiloh Jolie-Pitt French.”
And the Little Pim web address. C’est magnifique.
I have to admit I’m not an avid reader of gossip rags — I didn’t even know who Heide and Spencer were (and still sort of don’t) — but as an entrepreneur, having a celebrity like Angelina Jolie endorse Little Pim was quite a thrill. I have great admiration for her as a mother, a professional and someone dedicated to teaching her kids her mother’s native tongue. For a moment, my mind drifted to visions of vacationing with Brangelina and their brood in the South of France. You know, now that I am their language advisor and all. Would they want to stay at the Negresco in Nice or the Eden in Cap d’Antibes? Would we vous-voi or tu-toi each other?
But mostly I am excited that moms getting manicures and haircuts across America could be reading about Little Pim right now.
Yesterday I went to visit my new friend Ilana Laurence (aka “Ms. Laurence” to her elementary school students) at the Grace Church School where she teaches French. I was struck by how lucky the kids are who have her as a teacher – she is not only delightful and smart, she has also integrated new technologies into her classroom in a way that makes language learning easier, more fun, and more connected to the kids’ lives. In addition to her blog where she posts songs and video clips (she films her students in class with her Flip), she uses a SmartBoard in her classroom, which is kind of like a big iPhone touch screen projected on the wall. This allows her to grab images off the Internet to illustrate words they are learning (the day i visited I saw a train station in Paris) and her students can come up to the screen and match the on screen words with the images by dragging them with their finger. I can tell you nothing that cool ever happened in my French class! First of all, I didn’t even have French until seventh grade and my French teachers all seemed to be out of central casting and varied from cranky to mean. One threw chalk at us regularly. Though some of you were probably luckier, I suspect many of you had language teachers who were more like mine than like Ms. Laurence. I hope my sons will be able to learn from a Ms. Laurence one day, and I truly hope there are hundreds of other like her, a new generation of teachers making foreign language learning fun and relevant for today’s global kids.
Emmett loves to sing Alouette, the popular French nursery song. “Alouette, gentille alouette, alouette, je te plumerai…” (http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/lyrics/alouette.htm ). It’s a great song for teaching parts of the body because you point to different parts of your face, head and body throughout the song. Now Emmett has been singing it to his little brother, Adrian, almost eight months old. Adrian just laughs and laughs! I beam and beam to see my little boy passing on our French traditions.
Emmett is really proud that he speaks French. He will tell anyone who asks, “I speak French and my mom speaks French but my dad doesn’t.” Speaking French is probably the only thing our four year old can do that his dad can’t — and he is milking it for all its Oedipal worth! Emmett also took a Tai Kwon Do martial arts class for a few months last year and they taught him to count in Korean. He still likes to do the push ups, yelling out the push up numbers in Korean. When people ask if he speaks French he says “Yes, and Korean!” Even though that is a bit of a stretch, I love that he is excited and proud about his language skills.
Emmett and I made our own flash cards and have been having a great time with them. First, we draw six boxes on a piece of regular paper with a thick black pen. Then, following Emmett’s instructions, I drew a picture in each of the boxes with the word written under it in French. We laughed a lot over my bad drawings (the orange juice picture looked like a UFO landing). Emmett has never really liked store-bought flash cards and always got bored and restless right away when I tried to bring them out, so this was a great way to turn reviewing vocabulary into a fun game.
To play, I point to a box and he has to say in French what the picture is of. If he is having trouble remembering them, I say a word and he has to point to the one it is. Before we start I read through the words again, pointing to each picture and asking him to repeat after me so it sinks into his memory. If he gets five right he gets a gummy bear! We have about six sheets like this and they are really easy to carry around in my purse and bring out when we’re on a long subway ride, or waiting for food at a restaurant.
After much thought and work (and input from children like Emmett) we’ve finally developed a fun series of Little Pim flash cards in Spanish and French.