A couple of weeks ago, I came across a letter in the Social Q's column of the New York Times called "Misinterpreted." It was by a young woman who speaks Spanish to her 15 month-old-son to teach him her language. She, too, knows that young children pick up a language fast and that the sounds of the new language will be wired easily into their brain from the get go. As she says: "This way, our beautiful boy will know two languages." It's a dream that many parents share.
However, when the young woman picks up her son from daycare, the teachers are unhappy when the mother speaks Spanish to him and complain that they feel excluded.
This is definitely a dilemma in the US for someone speaking another language! And not just in the US. Intermarriage, dislocation, as well as travel have created the same problem on every continent. There's a tug-of-war between wanting to speak another language to teach and practice it and irritating others by excluding them from the conversation. So what are the guidelines of good language behavior? A delightful and thought-provoking article called "Language etiquette. Say What?" [New York Times, 1997] posits some answers: "Try to speak the language of the country you are in. Be tolerant of those who don't speak your language. ... Do not talk about others assuming they won't understand. ... But use your own language in private conversations if you wish."
These are very good suggestions, but they're not really relevant to the situation of the young woman who wants to make her son bilingual.
The dilemma has been an issue for me for most of my life. My first language is not English, I learned it as a young teen when my family moved to Canada. In addition to my native German, I spoke Dutch fluently and by that time had also started to learn French. That means, I've had lots of opportunities to speak non-English languages with family and friends. My mother especially was set on creating a multilingual family, a tradition I have vigorously continued.
So, I'll echo Philip Galanes' suggestion for the young woman who wants her child to become bilingual, and elaborate a little:
Be as inclusive as possible and approach the situation in a playful, humorous way. It's OK to speak Spanish to your son, but then tell the teachers the gist of what you said in English. Who knows, they might pick up a little Spanish in the process and could then teach all the other kids a few phrases too! You could even consider handing them a list of fun and useful Spanish kid-friendly phrases to share around ...
I definitely agree with Philip's caveat: "It's not nice to exclude people."
"Cognates" are words that have the same language root and often they have the same or a similar meaning. Word pairs that look like they have the same root, but have a different meaning, are called "false cognates" or "false friends." Below are six Spanish examples (for speakers of English):
me despierto: I wake up
Not: I'm desperate (Spanish: estoy desesperado)
Mañana tengo que despertarme temprano para tomar el tren a Granada.
(Tomorrow, I need to wake up early to take the train to Granada.)
éxito: hit (success)
Not: exit (Spanish: salida)
Este nuevo tour se está convirtiendo en un éxito para los turistas que visitan Sevilla.
(This new tour is becoming a hit among tourists visiting Seville.)
pretender: to try
Not: to pretend (Spanish: fingir)
Pretendemos lanzar la campaña “Visita España” la próxima primavera.
(We will be trying to launch the “Visit Spain” campaign next spring.)
recordar: to remember
Not: to record (Spanish: grabar)
Recuerde abrocharse siempre el cinturón de seguridad.
(Always remember to fasten your seat belt.)
Not: rope (Spanish: cuerda)
Es conveniente ponerse ropa de abrigo al visitar Granada en invierno.
(It's advisable to wear thick clothing when visiting Granada in winter.)
contestar: to answer
Not: to contest [a decision] (Spanish: protestar contra)
¿Podrías contestar al teléfono por favor?
(Could you please answer the phone?)
As a new online foreign language learning site – we just celebrated our first anniversary in January – that uses a story and games as key teaching tools, we are still experimenting with the pricing structure for our programs. GamesforLanguage.com currently offers beginner/refresher courses for four (4) languages: French, Spanish, Italian, and German.
We are interested in attracting learners who either can't afford the expensive programs on the market or who find some of the free programs not sufficient or effective. Programs which require CDs, DVDs, or downloads also may prevent learners from practicing while traveling or at a lunch break during the day. We believe that frequent, ideally daily, “language breaks” will greatly accelerate the foreign language learning process. That's where an online program really works well!
During our free Beta phase we quickly acquired thousands of learners who wanted to try our free language program. (See also: "How to Play and Learn with Gamesforlanguage.com".) However, many of these learners were not motivated enough to “stick with it” and continue with the course.
On the other hand, there are clearly many who acquire language courses for hundreds of dollars (e.g. Rosetta Stone, Fluenz et. al.) and, because they now have “some skin in the game,” these buyers are quite motivated to use such courses. (They may also experience the “Rosetta Stone Effect” - but that's another matter...)
The G4l Earn-back program
That's why we came up with an innovative "earn-back your purchase price” offer. Maybe our purchase price of $29.95 per course is too low for anybody to consider having “skin in the game.” But for someone who is motivated to start learning a new language in 40 days, the incentive to earn back his/her purchase price by completing daily lessons with a 95% score should be irresistible. The first two (2) lessons of the 36-lesson course are free. The 40-day window for completing all remaining 34 lessons will also allow for some skipped/lazy days. The reimbursement of $.88 for each completed lesson with a 95% score also applies to each referral to our site. (One caveat: As some buyers also benefit from our “Play&Learn” coupons and our four-course package of $59.95, the per lesson reimbursement may be lower for some buyers and, in any event, cannot exceed the purchase price.)
We assume that some interested learners may doubt their own commitment to complete all or most of the lessons in 40 days. They may also doubt GamesforLanguage's commitment to proceed with the earned reimbursement 40 days after the purchase – but those who do, should keep in mind that we want to acquire our language learning customers by word of mouth and referrals and not by expensive marketing campaigns.
Much has been learned about language acquisition by children. There appears to be some consensus by linguists that by the age of seven, children will have fully acquired the intonation and sounds of their first language. On the other hand, when they learn another language later in life, they will rarely equal the intonation of a native speaker in that language. Does this mean the goal of foreign language “fluency” will be elusive to an adult?
A recent Wikipedia entry surfaced the following definition:
“Language fluency is used informally to denote broadly a high level of language proficiency, most typically foreign language or another learned language, and more narrowly to denote fluid language use, as opposed to slow, halting use. In this narrow sense, fluency is necessary but not sufficient for language proficiency: fluent language users (particularly uneducated native speakers) may have narrow vocabularies, limited discourse strategies, and inaccurate word use. They may be illiterate, as well. Native language speakers are often incorrectly referred to as fluent.”
For Americans, there are wonderful examples of well-known public figures who came to the US as teenagers or adults and whose English could not be called anything but “fluent” - although their accent may still identify them as non-natives.
- Henry Kissinger was 15 when he arrived in the US in 1938.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger was 21 when he arrived in the US in 1968.
- Arianna Huffington was 19 when she moved to England in 1969
- Martina Navratilova was 19 when she came to the US in 1975
Most readers will have heard at least of one of these celebrities on radio and/or television. And you probably would call their English fluent – even though their more or less distinct accent makes it clear that they learned their English later in life. (Other examples, such as Albert Einstein, Leoh Ming Pei, the famous architect, Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court Justice, etc. could also be listed, but their voices are less well known.) It's likely, however, that most of these immigrants already had a basic knowledge of English when they arrived in the US. And, they perfected their new language in school and/or through diligent study.
So for all of you who shy away from learning a new foreign language or improving an “old” one, because you fear that you won't be able to speak it fluently: It is certainly not too late to start (again). You may never sound exactly like a native. It may even take an extended stay in the foreign country to give you full “fluency.” But learning and practicing to speak, read, and write another language will open up a new world and - as an added benefit – it will keep your brain neurons moving...
I recently had lunch with my friend Sue, who teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults in Boston. She said that she spends a fair amount of time explaining to her students how to pronounce English words. For example, how to move one's mouth and where to put one's tongue to produce certain sounds. English is a hard language to pronounce just right. Particular “culprits” for foreigners are often the two “th” sounds (think/those); the “l” and “r” sounds; “v” and “w”; and the combination “wh.” As she was talking about how to produce various sounds, she laughed and moved her jaw around, by way of demonstration.
When we speak our own language, we don't think about “mouth mechanics” (a term that I also found in Pete Strobl's interesting article for singers). We don't think about how our jaw is moving, where we place our tongue, and how we position our teeth, etc. But try to pronounce a foreign word that has a sound which is not part of your own language – and suddenly there you are, aware that you have “a mouth full of teeth.” There's a Dutch expression: “je staat met een mond vol tanden” (you stand with a mouth full of teeth), which aptly describes a sudden feeling of awkwardness about speaking up. I love this expression because it makes me smile. I think about it when the “mechanics” of my “foreign language mouth” fail. Just one of these all too human moments!
My friend went on to describe how one of her students had difficulty with a particular sound in English. Then she said: “All I did was tell him to put his tongue against his lower teeth.” He tried it, and the word sounded “like spoken by a native.” All the other students applauded.
When I was teaching (college) German, I would ostentatiously demonstrate “mouth mechanics” for certain German sounds that are difficult for Americans. For example, the difference between the harsh “ch” and the soft one. Or the sound of the German “l” which is light and lilting, as opposed to the American one, which has a “heavy” sound. The German “l” is produced in the front of the month, the American one in the back.
On the other hand, Germans find the English “w” is a hard sound to pronounce. It's a sound that does not exist in German. (The German “w” is pronounced like an English “v”.) Remembering to “round” his lips (like blowing) helped my husband improve his English “w”s!
Later, during the time that I was a writer and editor of self-teaching language courses, mentioning “mouth mechanics” was off limits. But I'm coming back to the wisdom of my teaching days. And so, I've decided to start including a few critical “mouth mechanic” descriptions in our Games for Language courses. Once you've understood the mechanics of producing a particular sound, the next step is to practice. Certain French sounds and sound combinations always were hard for me (my first language was German). But here I am, babbling away in French with my friends and relatives, no problem. What has helped me to get over the pronunciation hurdle is practicing a lot, while remembering some key French “mouth mechanics.”
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