(Applicable to French, Chinese, English and Any Other Language)
As promised in my previous blog post (please read it before this one), in my next few posts I am going to share with you my Number One practice for building proficiency 15 minutes at a time.
I will also share with you a few tips to improve your technique and get the most out of those precious 15-minute language sessions with your children (and please let me know how it’s going!).
Good painters prime the walls first in order to get the smoothest surface and the brightest colors. In the same way, in order to get the most of my Number One 15-minute practice, I’d like to tell you about (and help you prime) two enormous holes that are pretty common but unfortunately not very known by parents and teachers alike.
I can see your eyes rolling… Don’t worry! This time I will indeed tell you what the practice is (but don’t cheat and keep reading! And yes, this post is somewhat long, but very juicy :).
So let’s start by filling in those two large (and pretty common) holes in the early childhood language education wall so that you can get the very best of the 15 minute practice that I will soon (promise!) share with you:
Hole #1 – Teaching Your Child Just Words (e.g. Colors, Numbers, etc) or Flashcard Style Language
Priming this hole will consist in using fluent language from the get-go.
Unfortunately, the need to use fluent language from the beginner levels is not well understood in language education. This is why, even in the 21st century, children can go through long years of study without mastering a language.
In many instances, they simply are not exposed enough to fluent language in context. All that they do is practice words and expressions.
In fact, your children may not be exposed to fluent language until they have taken several years of language instruction, which in my opinion is absolutely crazy.
We have become addicted to flashcards (colors, numbers, animals), greetings (¡Hola! Me llamo… / Hi, my name is…), basic pragmatic expressions (¿Dónde está el baño? / Where is the bathroom?), and other language sound-bites of the sort. There is also the trap of focusing to closely on grammar…
This focus on language sound-bites, be them vocabulary, expressions or grammar in isolation is especially sad in the case of young children, because young children have a special sense for language.
As I said in the introduction to this post series,
One thing that is very clear today that [Maria] Montessori stated quite brilliantly in her time is that the young child goes through a very powerful sensitive period for figuring out languages. There are lots of studies documenting this amazing ability.
For this reason, I believe that we would do well to subscribe to Montessori’s ideas and transform ourselves into facilitators whose role is to prepare “the environment” (as Montessori called it) in order to allow young children work their inner magic with languages. By “environment,” Montessori meant much more than the physical environment; the term referred to all sorts of relationships, practices, and materials.
We need to change this state of affairs and start offering the rich fluent language that our children need in order to activate their inner detective-like linguistic skills.
A few weeks of daily 15 minutes packed with carefully crafted fluent language in context can help your children advance more than a whole year of unfocused and random delivery of words and expressions.
In fact, 15 minutes of carefully crafted fluent language in context can be all that you need to outrun the hare (if you remember what I said about the turtle and the hare).
But, what do I mean by “fluent language in context?”
By FLUENT I mean the way that native speakers of the language talk to each other. Granted that native speakers also make modifications when talking to babies and young children, but they don’t chop the language to the extreme.
Yes, their children will hear plenty of colors, numbers, and “Hello, birdie!” or “Goodbye, doggy.”
However, native parents will also say, “Today is a beautiful day. Let’s go to the park!” and have a fluent conversation with their children, even if the children are very young and only smile back.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use sound-bytes – they do indeed serve an important purpose in early language education. What I am saying is that it should not be at the expense of fluent language, because – let me tell you – NOTHING will take your children farther than using fluent language.
Unfortunately, in the foreign language circles (specially in regards to young children) chopping the language has become the norm, with the result that children are rarely exposed to fluent language.
Instead, your children may be learning words such as “mano” (hand) or “baño” (bathroom), or sentences such as “¿Cómo te llamas?” (What’s your name?), but they are not really exposed to longer sequences of fluent language that they (the children) have to decipher and then figure out how to produce themselves.
A very common method in elementary school, for example, is called “TPRS. ” In a nutshell, students are given a few vocabulary words accompanied by gestures at a time and little by little they start making a story out of it.
Yes, TPRS is a valuable tool in a teacher’s toolbox and the students learn and make progress, but TPRS does not employ the powerful brain of young children effectively. There is simply not enough of a young child’s inner linguistic knack being employed here. Fluent language should be part of any teacher (or parent) toolbox from the very beginning.
By IN CONTEXT I mean that when using fluent language with young language learners there has to be a clear point of reference. Young children are not able to process abstract ideas. For example, they will have a hard time understanding subtle cultural differences, but you can expose them to child-friendly cultural practices such as eating with sticks.
Hole #2 – Sitting your children in front of the TV or just letting them use iPad apps, DVDs or other programs ALONE
Priming this wall will consist in interacting with your children in the language.
This is another factor that is not well known by the general public and even by many language professionals: young children do not learn much language by watching the TV or using gadgets on their own, no matter how fun and interactive they are.
As they grow up, they will be able to learn more language that way, but not when they are young.
During the last two decades there has been a lot of fascinating research on the young child’s brain and how it process language and other information and let me tell you, we could well say that the young child has a mind of his own!
Interestingly enough, Maria Montessori was also talking about this many decades ago. She compared the process of human development to that of the caterpillar. While most people think that humans develop in a linear way, she realized that young children are to adults what the caterpillar is to a butterfly. That is, human development is not linear, but rather metamorphic.
In humans, this radical change is not physical as in the caterpillar, but psychological. Just as the caterpillar looks and behaves very differently than the butterfly, the young child thinks, organizes, and processes information quite differently than an adult.
That is why we need to think differently.
So What Do We Know About These Major Differences or Holes?
In connection with hole #1 we know, for example, that babies are pros at detecting language patterns, including sounds and grammar (young children still have this faculty, although not as acute as that of babies). In contrast, adults are pretty bad at this, especially at detecting sounds. That’s why we want everything explained and sounded out for us.
In connection with hole #2 we know, for example, that babies and toddlers simply don’t learn ANY language by watching TV. NOT EVEN if you insert a video of their mommies talking to them. The same applies to other gadgets. For some reason, our human caterpillars need direct human interaction in order to learn language. This continues to be very strong during early childhood. In contrast, adults and older children can learn a lot of language by using a multiplicity of platforms on their own.
I’ll give you a second tip in reference to hole #2. Young children learn language best in one-on-one interactions with adults or older children. Obviously, if young children have very basic language, they will not learn as much language from each other as from a rich interaction with adults or older siblings/children.
Please note that I am not saying that young children should not interact with other children their age. NOT AT ALL! They will benefit greatly from that interaction as well. What I am saying is that all things being equal, young children will experience the most language growth when interacting with adults or older children. So make sure to dedicate some special time for that one-on-one interaction (the practice I am about to share is great for this).
That is why YOU, the parent or educator, are in a unique position to provide the best language education at the best time. All you need then is the how-to knowledge.
So Now that We Have Primed the Early Language Wall (at Least in Reference to Two Important Holes) … What Is the 15-Minute Golden Practice That Tops Any Other to Speed-Up Proficiency in Spanish or Other Language?
The answer is…
and I am sure this answer may surprise you…
READING ALOUD to/with your children
Truly? Reading aloud? To learn a new language in early childhood? How come?
Yes, if I only had 15 minutes of instruction or interaction with my children I would make absolutely sure to read aloud to them. I know that I would get the most bang for my time by doing that.
However, I told you that I would do it somewhat differently. Multilingual upbringing requires multilingual solutions.
But this blog is getting way too long and I want you to digest the tons of information that I just gave you. So let’s stop here for today. I will be back with some great tips to make the most of that reading aloud interaction next Saturday, March 3rd. Stay tuned or sign in to my list to receive a reminder! [To opt in to my list, just write your name and e-mail information on the right sidebar where it says, “Sign Up for Language Learning Tips”]
To be continued on 3/3…
P. S. In the meantime, you may want to take a look at the “Language Challenge 180” hosted by Multilingual Living. Better to learn in company, don’t you think? At this point there are over 350 families that have joined the challenge. Why not join the fun!
P. S. S. Talking about reading aloud, make sure to check my collection of bilingual e-storybooks in Spanish, French, and Chinese with English on this website (also available as iPad apps from the iPad App Store).
P. S. S. S. And if you are interested in other languages, check out the Language Lizard website for fantastic bilingual books in many languages.
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.