Monday, June 14, 2010

Foreign Languages for Kids, or The Babel Babble

“The funniest word in the world is Popotam, which is French for hippopotamus.” -Jack

“The funniest phrase in the world is Deutschvergnügnen, which is German for 'enjoy German'.” -Sassy

I don't think I'm alone in suspecting that the combined output of words in my household could, if somehow harnessed, provide enough power to run a small city. Neither Lance or I are the reticent type, and between us we have produced six people who are more than ready to tell you what they're thinking. Our married children have also chosen verbose mates, and when we are all together – well, you couldn't get a word in edgewise with a shoe horn. And that's the way we like it.

There's a belief among linguists that a child's mind is a tabula rasa – a blank slate – that is organically poised to learn language. A baby who is beginning to babble and coo makes – and can aurally differentiate among – all the sounds needed to speak and understand every language spoken on Earth, though when they begin to speak their native tongue they slowly lose the sounds they don't need anymore. By the time a child is five years old his brain has gone on to other things and he loses the ability to learn a language like a native speaker. However, this by no stretch of the imagination means that the kid should stick with his own language.

Learning to speak and understand a foreign tongue – besides being a requirement for most college-bound high school students – is one of those things like playing the piano or learning to dance: the kid may be reluctant at the time, but will be profoundly grateful later in life. 5 out of 6 of our kids loved their language classes (Rocky hated French so much that for months he wouldn't even eat crepes). They've all taken Latin, Spanish, French, Japanese and/or German in high school and/or college, and it has added a whole new dimension to their lives – and our dinner-table conversations. As I write this, our high-schoolers are singing Schnappi (a particularly annoying German song) while they do their after-school chores, and Jack spent most of Rocky's graduation party speaking French to Joy in preparation for today's final exams.

In addition to the possible thrill they will get later in life when they find they can communicate with someone from another part of the world, there's nothing like learning a foreign language to help English make sense to your kids. They learn syntax – the tools that make language work – unconsciously as they are beginning to speak their native language, so having something like “irregular verbs” explained to them as it pertains to, say, French, suddenly crystallizes the whole concept of, “I am . . . you are . . . he is . . . aha!” and helps the whole thing make sense.

If you're having trouble getting your children interested in a foreign language, there is one sneaky way to guarantee they'll pay attention – suggest they learn a language you don't know so they can speak it to their friends. A phone conversation in German is even more incomprehensible to an out-of-the-loop parent than a phone conversation in Teenspeak.

Come to think of it, it's not too late for me . . . I'd better order that German language CD if I'm going to keep up with the kids this summer!


  1. I am just ITCHING to get a Rosetta Stone in either Spanish or French or SOMETHING for the children to start learning.

  2. It's SOOOOOOOOOO expensive!!! Sometimes the library has it, though.

  3. It IS expensive, isn't it?? I wonder if my library has it... I shall have to check it out! My brother has one in German for his stay in... Germany. Heh.


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