By now, most people are aware of the terrible effects of fast food on our metabolism and our health. We certainly would not want to subject ourselves (much less our children) to a diet exclusively based on fast food!
Unfortunately, what many parents don’t realize is that pre-packaged, fast food type of approaches are creeping into education.In the case of world languages, the most rapid expansion of fast food can be observed in what I call the “flashcard approach”—and, boy, is it popular!
So what is a flashcard?
A flashcard is a tool (think of a nail, for example) designed to support a much larger structure (think of a house). While nails are useful, you certainly would want to have more tools than nails in your toolbox in order to build a house!
The typical flashcard has a photo or an illustration and the name of the object, person, location, time, action, etc., in the target language (for example, a picture of a table and the words “una mesa” in Spanish).
Flashcards can be put together in strings to create sentences. For example, you could create a string to say that “La manzana está sobre la mesa” (“The apple is on the table”).
Like all tools, the impact of flashcards is localized and limited. The truth is thatyou could spend years memorizing a whole dictionary and thousands upon thousands of sentence strings and still not speak a language. Why is that? Because the house (a language) requires much more than nails, no matter how long and sturdy they are.
In my twenty years of experience in language education I have never met anyone that has learned a language exclusively through flashcards. Ah, what a waste of time, money, effort, and capacity!
But let’s go back to the fast food analogy. As crazy as it may seem, many language-learning companies have done the quick calculation that flashcards are cheap to produce and easy to sell because they produce an immediate feeling of satiation. Just as with fast food, you feel stuffed, but for the wrong reasons.
Another parallel effect is that flashcards, like fast food, produce addiction. The moment a person used to the flashcard approach confronts something even slightly more challenging, the physical response is that of rejection—“This is too difficult” “I can’t do it” “It takes too much effort” “Why should I even try if I have this fantastic (flashcard-based) program available?” Ironically, they seem unaware of the fact that the flashcard approach is not leading them to effective communication because it’s missing many important components. One of the most critical? Social interaction.
Now, imagine your town full of fast food chains and only two or three restaurants where the chef actually cares about providing carefully prepared and nutritious food. And now imagine that those fast food chains have managed to get a leg in your children’s schools and they are ready to substitute all the healthy food for candy. You would be up in arms, right?
Well, that is precisely what is taking place in Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic, and Chinese language classes around the country. Teachers are out; flashcard-based software programs are in.
Why am I so upset if I am also a businesswoman that publishes language-learning materials? First because I am a mom and second because I believe that all children should receive a well-rounded quality education that includes languages. We don’t use the computer and flashcards exclusively to teach children math and English, so why do we think this approach is appropriate to teach them languages?
Let me be clear: Nothing can replace the profound impact of well-trained teachers or engaged parents in language education. The best language-learning materials are designed to support parents and teachers efforts, not to replace them.
In the same way, we teachers—and especially parents—need to open our eyes and understand what sort of “deal” we are getting when we purchase a language-learning packet.
Ask yourself, “It looks like a great value, but is this truly good for my kids?”
If what you want is to expose your children to a few words, then go ahead and use only flashcards. On the other hand, if you truly want your children to learn a new language, then realize that you won’t get there with flashcards only.
The good news is that the human brain (and especially that of children) is designed to learn language. You don’t need to spoon-feed your kids their first language, and the same is true of any additional language. There are much better ways to stimulate those wonderful language-learning engines so that they reach their full potential.
Ana Lomba is changing the way people think about and interact with young children learning languages. Her Parents’ Choice award-winning books, lively songs, games, stories, and mobile applications are quickly becoming favorites with teachers and parents who want to nurture young children’ inborn language abilities. Key to the success of Ana’s break-through method is a focus on the family as the ideal environment for early language learning – even her signature curriculum for language programs is built with parents in mind. Ana has taught toddler, preschool, elementary school, and college-level Spanish courses, and held leadership positions with some of the most influential language organizations in the US, including ACTFL, NNELL and FLENJ. After graduating with a law degree from Spain, her native country, Ana pursued graduate studies at Binghamton University, Princeton University, and NYU.