Teaching Your Children Another Language
LIVING as we do in a world on the move, it may well turn out that tomorrow your next-door neighbors will be persons who speak what to you is a foreign tongue. For political, economic and social reasons, as well as to further their education, people are relocating themselves in all parts of the globe. Perhaps there is already a foreign-speaking population where you live. Truly, East, West, North and South are meeting as never before. So if your children come running home with the exciting announcement, “Dad! Mom! We have a new playmate who doesn’t even talk the way we do,” you might seriously begin to consider teaching your children to speak another language.
‘Who? Me?’ you object. ‘Why, I can hardly speak my own!’
Before closing your mind completely to the prospect, however, consider this fact: Talking to native speakers is one of the best “teachers” there is. As you get acquainted with them, extending hospitality, you will also be able to learn something about their language, and this will enable you to teach your children. How many isolated language buffs would jump at a chance to trade places with you! So often they find it difficult in their solitary studies to get the feel of the language the way that natives do.
Thus, Step One in teaching your children may well be . . .
When the ship carrying the Christian apostle Paul and 275 other persons was shipwrecked on the island of Malta, the account says that “the foreign-speaking people showed us extraordinary human kindness.” (Acts 27:37; 28:1, 2) Although not speaking Greek, the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, these Maltese people knew what shipwrecked fellow humans would need. Likewise, a sincere desire to provide the necessities of life for strangers could bridge the language gap and even result in a language lesson for both parties. Have they recently come from abroad? Perhaps they need sheets, blankets, towels, pots and pans to use until theirs arrive. Here is your opportunity to learn the words for these items in their language and to teach them the corresponding words in your own language if they do not already know them.
At first you and your new neighbors, with the children participating, can find real pleasure in identifying common objects for one another in the other’s language. Door. Window. Hat. Shoe. Book. Afterward, when your family gets together you will probably review the words you have learned. Your vocabulary keeps on growing; you have become the learn-along teachers of your children. Equally important, your appreciation of the fact that God “made out of one man every nation of men” is also growing. (Acts 17:26) Just a few encounters are sufficient to convince you that all humans have similar physical needs and the same craving to have their dignity respected by their fellowman. This is an invaluable lesson to convey to your offspring as a by-product of learning another language.
Of course, if there already exists a foreign-speaking population in your community, others of their own nationality may have supplied their essential needs. Consequently, you may have to be resourceful to get acquainted. Perhaps, however, through the schools, your place of employment, various community organizations or in the stores, you can get to know someone whose native language is different from yours. Jehovah’s Witnesses and their children frequently make contact with people of other language groups as a result of calling at their homes to discuss the Bible.
Learning to Fit It All Together
To achieve functional mastery of another language you will require more than a list of nouns and a few verbs. You will need to understand (feel) how that language fits together in all its component parts. You will want to sense which word combinations sound natural and which comical, or even ridiculous, to the native speaker. It would be practical to flavor your conversation generously with idioms; these are both challenging and stimulating to the mind. An idiom is an expression that is peculiar to a language and that cannot be understood by literal, word-for-word translation. It has to be equated with an expression that carries the same meaning in the other language.
Also vital to remember is this: In many languages young people are expected to use noun, pronoun and verb forms that reflect respect for the other person according to his age and position in life. This is a necessary lesson for you lovingly to impart to your children, if such forms are nonexistent in your own language. The young person who failed to display such courtesy would be branded as disrespectful.
As your study becomes serious, you will doubtless begin shopping around for a basic grammar book and possibly a set of language records or tapes. Many of your foreign-speaking neighbors will appreciate your efforts to learn their language and will gladly encourage you by talking to you. Perhaps you can help them to master your language in exchange. In living speakers you have an important catalyst for language mastery—the opportunity to practice. Linguist Mario Pei writes that “you learn to speak by opening your mouth and speaking, not by sitting, brooding, and thinking about it. You learn to understand by listening with all your ears, watching for every possible clue, trying again and again if at first you don’t succeed, until you are finally in a position to unscramble every message.”
You learn to speak by speaking. Although records can be very helpful, their one serious drawback is that they can’t talk back to you. To engage in living conversation you must talk to living people. So if you have neighbors who speak another language, don’t hold back.
Opportunities to Practice
Meanwhile, your children may be playing with children from different language groups. There seems to be a tendency on the part of the children of immigrants to learn the principal language of a country with as little of an accent as possible, while deliberately neglecting the language of their parents. Frequently, too, temporary residents in a land prefer to speak the language of the country in order to get all the practice they can before returning home. The speed with which they acquire fluency (with the aid of native speakers) gives you an idea of how fast your children might learn with similar assistance.
If you have taught your children to respect people of all nations and tongues, they will not feel that their language is superior if it is spoken by the majority in the community. They may, therefore, be successful in encouraging their schoolmates and playmates to help them learn their tongue. Some language students have made an agreement to speak the language of the one on one occasion and the language of the other on the next. In that way both parties are helped.
If this happens, the situation itself, in a sense, becomes the teacher. Your role as parent comes to the fore as you provide opportunities for wholesome association. Occasions when the family comes together can become times to compare what each one has been learning, to review, to practice.
There is something else that will help to keep the family’s interest at a high level.
Having learned the foreign alphabet, the family is in a position to play spelling games. Mastering numbers allows the children to display their skills at arithmetic. If the family enjoys music, simple folk songs with catchy rhythms can add zest to language learning. Adding to your vocabulary by categories serves both as a memory aid and as a stimulus to conversation. You may want to include the following word groups: parts of the body, articles of clothing, emotions and abstract qualities, sizes, shapes, textures, colors, directions, familiar animals and birds, parts of a house and its furnishings, and conventional modes of travel. True, good grammar books introduce many of these words. However, your family will doubtless want to begin compiling its own vocabulary, one that is the outgrowth of your own interests and experiences in life.
As the children’s conversational skills increase, you will be able to lead them in discussions of both personal experiences and items from the news. Persons who enjoy the Bible will be able to spend many happy hours reading and discussing the Scriptures. In visiting restaurants where you can talk to the proprietor and waiters in your second language and while shopping in stores where that language is spoken and heard, the family is further stimulated to make progress. Of course, inviting your new-language friends to your home to share a meal will make you glad you decided to widen out linguistically.
Clearly, the benefits of teaching your children another language are several. The entire family is activated intellectually and helped to deepen their conviction that all people do indeed constitute but one human family. At the same time, you are drawn closer together by virtue of sharing an extended project. You open up an entirely new field of friends. You learn to appreciate a different culture and background. You enhance your sense of humor as you learn to laugh at yourself. These are just some of the joys that you will derive from teaching your children another language.
[Picture on page 20]
Children usually learn another language easily