Okay, confession time: my idea of fun (!) is to be thrown in a country where I speak two words of the language and have to navigate my way through it by speaking to the natives. Not in English.
You see, language is the fundamental expression of a culture, of its ideas. And traveling without understanding any of the vernacular is a huge loss in one’s understanding of the entire culture.
Learning someone else’s language is a great way of showing that you care about them.
I was fortunate to grow up in a house where my dad speaks Germanic languages (Dutch and German) and my mother the Latin languages (Portuguese fluently, Italian, French, and Spanish). Hearing those languages spoken as a young child undoubtedly increased my facility for later learning. However, the first exposure I had to formalized instruction was at Duke’s TIP Program, where I took French.
During high school, I participated in the International Baccalaureate program and had the chance for a foreign exchange to Luxembourg. Fear of speaking (and making mistakes) kept me from exploring and learning the language until I had been there for many months. That was my huge mistake.
I later went to Vienna for a summer program during college, learning German to fluency. My experience in Luxembourg taught me not to wait until I felt “comfortable” to start chatting – because that point will never come. Since that time, travels in Spain and Italy have allowed additional language opportunities, and my Netherlander relatives have promoted my understanding of Dutch!
So the main question was not if, but how to incorporate language instruction into my homeschooling program for my fourth and sixth graders. We discussed the different language options and decided that we wanted to study Italian. To do this, we purchased basic grammar books, audiotapes (which can often be checked out from the library), and a few other travel and phrase books. We try to work twice per week on language, half an hour at a time. We also use as many words and phrases as we can during normal conversations and household activities. “I love you” is a phrase we had to learn right off the bat! As well as “I’m hungry,” “you have to do your work,” and “what time is it?” We take this fairly lightheartedly, feeling free to laugh at our (many) mistakes, keeping it fun.
And the best part of language learning? It has got to be the “immersion” process. By this, I mean (yes!) a trip to a country where your chosen language is spoken. We have had the chance to go to Italy twice and are hoping to spend another few weeks there in 2009. The first time we went, I allowed my daughter to take cover under her natural shyness and didn’t press her to practice language. While hearing it is certainly beneficial, the best way to learn is to speak it as often and as much as possible. So when we went this past September, I set the expectation that both girls would be taking care of their own needs in Italian. This was particularly tough on the nine year old who had only studied the language for six weeks. At first, we had to feed her one word at a time. By the end of 10 days, though, she was an expert at ordering gelato and meals and was able to negotiate her own purchases!
While we were traveling, we purchased some Italian children’s books that had CDs to provide proper pronunciation. Since we’ve been home, my younger one has been enjoying “reading” those. My elder daughter is addicted to Harry Potter (and has memorized most of the books), so we purchased the first three in Italian translation. This expands her vocabulary tremendously, is surprisingly easy to read (since she already knows the books so well!), and helps with her understanding of the grammar.
While learning a language can be intimidating to some, there are so many resources available that it is not out of anyone’s reach to learn the basics. When asked why she wanted to learn a foreign language, my daughter put it this way: “Learning someone else’s language is a great way of showing that you care about them.” And in my opinion, that is the best reason of all.
—Alexandra Hook, MS
Alexandra Hook graduated from Emory University in Physics and Environmental Science, minoring in French. She holds a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Institute of Technology and was a National Science Foundation Fellow. She currently works part-time as a consulting engineer and homeschools two of her three children.