Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Contemplating the Gift of Language

American parents give their children the gift of music, dance, sport, art, theater, God and so on. Unfortunately, unless a family is bilingual to begin with, we rarely give our children the gift of language. We look to the schools to do it beginning when our children are in seventh, eighth or ninth grade.

Most American parents are aware that children can easily master a second language up through age six. After that, it becomes very difficult. It is very rare to find an American student, who began a second language in junior high, able to graduate from high school fluent in that language.

In many European countries, language classes begin sometime between preschool and kindergarten. By the time students enter high school, most students speak a second language fluently and go on to a third language during high school and college. In some countries, early language introduction may be a new thing. In our travels, high school and young college students tend to speak very good English and, often, French or Spanish. However, we frequently come across men and women ages 25 and above who do not speak any English at all. That being said, my husband works with men and women from over 20-different countries and well more than half of them speak at least two and up to five languages.

A little boy in Olivia's swimming lesson class is just over five. He began English at school over a year ago. His comprehension is wonderful and when he's not being shy, he speaks very good beginner English. This used to floor me. Until Olivia became fluent (four-year-old fluent, mind you) in Portuguese within six months of part-time preschool.

I'm the Crazy One

It's quite possible that Olivia, being the outspoken, opinionated (wonder where she gets that from), chatter box that she is, has a gift for language simply because she cannot not talk. She has important things to say, gosh darn it! I do know that not all preschoolers immersed in a second language become fluent in six months. However, most do by the end of the school year.

Up until a month or two ago, I thought that we'd move back to the US and, slowly, Olivia would lose her Portuguese. My hope was that when she took Spanish (or French, etc) as a junior high student, it would come easily to her because of her previous bilingual background (far-fetched thought).

Recently, however, as I watched Olivia play, talk and laugh with her Portuguese friends at school, I began to think that maybe we could continue giving our child the gift of language. I began to think about what she could do with a second langauge. What cultures, travel, job and volunteer opportunities would be opened up to her (Lila too - because we won't do this for just Olivia)! The possibilities...

So, maybe we could transition her to Spanish (Portuguese communities are far and few between in the US and my bilingual friends think she could easily transition to Spanish, for example) this coming Fall by putting her in a preschool that offers Spanish class once or twice a week, coupled with a playgroup or after school language program. I know these things aren't completely unheard of in the States. You just have to reach out in the community. Right?

Well, so far, the Ft. Leavenworth area has very little to offer aside from ESL classes (English as a second language). Not a single preschool with any language program whatsoever, public or private. No wonder American families don't give the gift of language. It is a challenge to find local resources and when you do, it can be costly. This is a shame and I think America needs to step it up in the language department!

Now, I have to think outside the box. Giving the gift of language is quite a foreign concept to many American families. I have a local (Ft. Leavenworth area) high school Spanish teacher's email address. It is my hope that she and her husband (a Spanish interpreter) will have some contacts or advice as to how we can keep language alive for our children. They may be involved in a Spanish community that the people I have talked to are unaware of...

I may be banging my head up against the wall. I may be considered "the crazy mother" for even attempting this. But, I have to try.

Living abroad has taught me the value of giving the gift of of language - beginning in toddlerhood.


Jay and Amie said...

I hope you figure it out - that truly would be a gift!

Mom said...

You go girl...Remember Dad is quite upset that he can't speak a lick of French, having had his Mom insist he learn english instead of french growing up. How unfortunate that he didn't have the opportunity to learn both.

Angie said...

There are language immersion elementary schools in the town where we will most likely be moving in a year (french and spanish.) They are magnet schools so you have to apply, but we would like Ashlyn to go to one of them. We hated that she didn't get to go to German kindergarten longer. There are enough Spanish speakers here that I am hoping that she will pick up some of it. The preschool where she will go next year will also teach a bit of Spanish (the teacher is hispanic.)So, we are right there with you on wanting our kids to know another language. I didn't do very well on learning very much German, but I am planning on going back to Spanish, which I think will have more practical application living in this country. I would like to finally be the one who saves a non-native speaker by speaking in their language!