God is German.
At least that’s what I thought when I was four. By that age, I’d heard more prayers in my home in German than in English (prayers over the food, at bedtime), which was just part of my parents’ method of keeping their second language active and inspiring us kids to some day crack the Teutonic code. We all eventually did.
Then we moved to Austria the year I turned fourteen. I found myself plunking through Mozart piano duets and small talk in German with an instructor whose German (even my adolescent American ears knew this) had an accent. I just couldn’t pin it down. And I wasn’t nosey (or fluent) enough to get into an involved conversation about where she was from.
It was only decades later, after having mastered German better than Mozart, that I discovered this piano professor had been American (a transplant from Minnesota), and that my parents had conspired with her to make those hours at her Steinway not only about hammering out scales but also about nailing down German verb conjugations.
Mom and Dad knew intuitively what I’ve learned throughout over twenty years of raising four children in eight countries while learning five languages. To achieve close-to-native fluency, you must have three things:
3 MUSTS: Opportunity, Necessity and Community
“Opportunity” can be a foreign residency, as I was lucky to enjoy many times in my youth, and as my children have been given due to our globally nomadic lifestyle.
But not everyone has that kind of opportunity. Take heart! There are others: A parent might speak a foreign tongue. Or there are neighbors/relatives/friends who speak another language. There are immersion classes at school. There is someone somewhere in your neighborhood or circle of acquaintances, I promise this, who fluently speaks a language other than yours. “Opportunity” comes in all sorts of variations of contact with another language.
Still, none of these opportunities – foreign residency included – can guarantee that you or your child will learn the language. Proof of that is seen in every immigrant community where the members stick in their native tongue cluster, never becoming functional in the language of their host country. Have you witnessed this anywhere? Everywhere I have lived in the world there seems to have been an expatriate “ghetto,” where folks function (sometimes for years, even decades) without learning the language of the people surrounding them. That’s what we call a lost opportunity.
So clearly opportunity alone won’t unlock the doors to speaking new a language. What else does one need?
There must be opportunity + necessity, so that the brain kicks into gear and latches onto a language in earnest. We’re talking a modicum of desperation. Often, if we know there’s an escape from the difficulties and pain and humiliation of learning a new language, we’ll quickly swerve into that exit. We’ll revert to our mother tongue. We’ll wave off the pesky role-play, giggle, and speak English to the piano teacher. Or we’ll simply go silent and retreat. It takes the pressure of real need to heat up those brain cells and stoke our motivation to learn. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of language. Including your or your child’s next foreign one. You’ll need to create a situation where your child has no choice but to speak. That is half your battle.
Necessity + Community
I recall smiling so broadly one day, I nearly strained a cheek muscle. We were less than a year into our new home in Norway when I happened around the corner near the play room and overheard a conversation between our five-year-old Parker and Maria, the friend he’d invited over that afternoon to play. I couldn’t tell who was Norwegian and who was not. Parker had crossed over. Maria, with her white curls and sparkly blue eyes had been a major language magnet for our boy. Yes, we lived in Norway. (Opportunity). And luckily, our son desperately wanted friends. (Necessity). Just as fortunately, Maria – along with kindergarteners and teachers, and our church, soccer, skiing and neighborhood friends – wanted to be our on-site language technicians. (Community). We all fell right into linguistic stride. Parker – and the rest of us at the time – learned to speak fluently, and we’ve worked at keeping that language alive ever since.
Beyond the ideal situation of enjoying a foreign residency as we did in Norway and other countries, what can one do to approximate opportunity, necessity and community?
3 Bests: Parents, Domains, Schools
Inna is Russian and Joseph is French. They live in Germany. Their work requires that they master English. They are raising their two children quadrilingually, with each parent consistently speaking his or her mother tongue. German, the children learn in school. English, they learn at church.
1) Speak it! If a parent speaks a foreign language as a mother tongue, that must be his or her language with the child. That practice must be consistent and should begin at the child’s birth. Science has found that until the onset of puberty, children’s brains are able to absorb and order several foreign tongues at once. The earlier the start, the easier the acquisition, and the better the chances of learning with greater facility more languages later in life.
2)Earmark domains. For Inna and Joseph’s children those domains are 1) home, 2) school and the community at large, and 3) church. Seek out or create domains – places (Spanish-speaking grandma’s on weekends, summer vacations to your Japanese family), activities (soccer in Portuguese, flute lessons in Polish), or relationships (the Italian uncle with whom you Skype, the Swedish cousin to whom you telephone, the Korean pen pal) that will be completely and consistently immersed in the target language.
3)Formal Instruction. Even the very best course isn’t going to promise native fluency. But a great instructor can give your child an excellent departure point. Insist that your foreign language teacher be a native speaker, and that he/she teaches the natural approach, which emphasizes in those earliest stages especially verbal interaction and listening comprehension over dissecting the mechanics of grammar. Classes should be taught in the target language, not in the student’s native tongue with mere interjections of the foreign language. Ask about teaching methodology, favoring classrooms with creative and interactive musical, theatrical, tactile and kinesthetic programs. The more play there is, especially for younger children, the more effective the language learning will be.
3 BOOSTS: Exposure, Media, Incentives
1) Foreign Exposure. Can’t go to a foreign country? Can’t send your teen on that summer immersion to Montreal? Can’t see sending your twelve-year-old to that week-long Spanish camp? Then bring foreign to you in the form of foreign exchange students. Or how about encouraging Skype exchanges with a Beijing student? Or find local cultural festivals where you can sniff out new friends and customs and simply hear the language floating around you. Scour your local papers for events/connections in the target language.
2)Media. Listen to the target language in music, DVD series and in television programs (especially those with your native language in subtitles. This is a major key to how Scandinavians and the Dutch learn English so well and so early. Their imported television programs aren’t dubbed, but are subtitled in their native language. The French, in contrast, impose French dubbing.) For older children, there are multiple resources via the Internet where your child can actively converse with true native speakers. I have purchased audio books and the corresponding hard copy, so that my reading children can listen and read along simultaneously.
3)Incentives. Heidi, whose children have learned Norwegian, English and German, paid them for letters written to grandparents in all those languages. Irina, who speaks five languages in her home, rewarded her boys for acing their French and English exams. When our own children have done something as simple as ordering food at a restaurant in the target language, or something as substantial as giving a public address in that tongue, we’ve rewarded them well and openly.
Whatever your methods of encouraging multilingualism, be prepared for brain fatigue and resistance. It is enormous mental work to assimilate the complex codes of a new tongue. When Randall and I were newlyweds, we instructed German both on the university level as well as at one of the world’s leading language immersion centers, the Training Center for prospective full-time volunteers for our church, known as the MTC (Missionary Training Center.) The university setting was a typical academic one, three classes a week, so far from total immersion, although we taught our classes primarily in German.
The MTC was closer to a total immersion experience. As of the first week, our classes of young volunteers were challenged to SYL – Speak Your Language (or speak nothing at all) – although they’d only spent a record 76 hours within the MTC walls. Period. It got very quiet right about then. And our students got headaches! It is hard work to pry out the mother tongue (let’s say it’s English) and replace it with another (there are 52 language taught at the MTC).
But what was astounding and gratifying was to experience moments of serendipity and excitement, when the student felt the shutters of her mind and her world being flung wide open. When you offer this to your child, you will experience along with her the out-and-out thrill when she discovers not just a new language, but a new world and a new self it that world.
What have been your experiences with learning another language? What worked? What didn’t?
How have you offered opportunity+necessity+community to your family so that they have learned another tongue?
Can you share a story that illustrates the agony and the ecstasy of gaining fluency in a new language?
And really. . .Why bother with other languages, anyway?