Thursday, October 25, 2012

Bilingually clueless Brits

Is the UK (and the anglo-saxon world for that matter) ever going to get to grips with how to teach foreign languages? Obviously, it's a subject close to my heart given my educational, work and domestic background, but it never ever ceases to amaze me how pathetic our misguided efforts are. And yet it really is so simple. With pre-schoolers, you don't need to teach language, you simply need to immerse them in it. Teaching babies to translate is insane, you shouldn't even try to create one to one mappings in their heads - that is completely contrary to how a bilingual child functions. One thing I am qualified to talk about, given I have five bilingual kids, is bilingualism in kids! Bilingual kids don't translate, they think in the language they are using in the specific context in which they find themselves. I remember this clearly from when Marcel and Charlotte were little. People would hear me speaking to them in French (I spoke only French to them unless my parents or brother were around). Everyone, to a man, had the same reaction - Oh that's wonderful! Say something in French, what's French for dog/house/car (etc)? My poor child would struggle at four to map the word dog/house/car to chien/maison/voiture, and often the adult would say in front of my child: I thought you said they spoke French? On turning to Marcel or Charlotte, I would speak in French to them, in order to engage the French part of their brain, I would point at a car and say 'Quand on va au supermarché, on y va en...' and before I'd finish the sentence, of course, my child would complete it with 'voiture' because the kids think in French, they don't translate. So something that frustrates me terribly is our persistence in trying to teach lists of words and their translations to preschoolers. At that age, they are little sponges that can be taught languages properly and instead we spend so much money on nonsense like Dora the Explorer and The Lingo Show. Teaching a toddler to count to five in Spanish, or list the colours or teaching them the French for a couple of concrete nouns in addition to hello and goodbye is so pointless it makes me want to cry and throw things at the TV.

Today I made myself sit down and watch the Lingo show from one end to the other. It ran for about twelve minutes. The kids were taught how to count to three in French, they were taught hello and goodbye and they were taught three nouns. What use is that? If they developed something rich in visuals, they could simply run the whole thing in French and the kids would understand. Thomas has experimented with this with Léon occasionally, simply deciding to talk to him in say Spanish (which Léon doesn't speak - he speaks fluent Danish and has some French, a little German and can cope with Norwegian). As long as it is visual - pass me the knife, the fork, the salt, this is nice, I like this, with a little gesticulation, and facial clues, he gets it, no translation involved. You can sit and count things, point things out and mention their colour but without mentioning the English, they get it too.

I was shopping in Silverburn with my mother-in-law a couple of weeks ago. She invited me for a coffee in Costa. There we sat (Brita, Amaia and I) drinking our coffee. It was yummy mummy coffee time. A woman was sitting at the next table with two kids - they looked about two and four. She was Scottish but trying to teach them Spanish. She was making every mistake in the book too. What she was doing didn't need any English explanation - she wanted to say something like 'Who wants cake? This is nice cake. Do you want something to drink?' in Spanish, but she instead she did most of it in English. 'Who wants a torta? A torta is a cake. Who wants one? If I want two tortas I can count them uno (arg!), dos' - I wanted to actually go over and grab her by the lapels and shout at her 'NO NO NO! You aren't teaching them the grammar this way, or the gender, you're giving English equivalents, you will never get anywhere this way and if they are so young, just talk to them and point, it works!!!!' 

Do we never stop and ask ourselves how we pick up our native language? When we point at a cake and say cake our two year old works out a cake is called a cake, so why do we feel the need to translate when telling a two year old cake in a different language?! Think about it!

Anyway, I'd be very surprised if anyone with any real linguistic bent allows their child to watch these kinds of shows!

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