Friday, August 12, 2011

How Soon Is Now?

Last fall, my sister took off for Barcelona and spent a couple of months earning her TEFL certification. When she returned home, she was full of wonderful stories about her teaching experiences, life in Barcelona, her travels in Spain and weekend jaunts to Rome. When I was sufficiently dewy-eyed and full of vicariously-earned sighs, she started in on me.

"You need to start teaching the girls a foreign language. Now."

"The girls" are Bronte, Chloe, and Carys, ages 9, 7 and 5 respectively, and I homeschool them. The idea of adding foreign language studies to our lives sounded exciting. 

"I'll do it!" I cried, immediately envisioning our own European adventures in a not-so-distant future.

But our school year had already started, our routine already established. Fall gave way to the holidays and then I figured, what's the point of starting something new in January? Still, I worried that a crucial window of opportunity was closing, especially for Bronte. 

As soon as our summer break began, I started planning for the upcoming school year and this time I was determined to finally start a language program. I asked other homeschool mothers, tore apart the local used book store, and poked around online where I found an advertisement for Language Stars. New centers had opened in Reston and Ashburn, fairly near us, and they were offering a free trial session.  Why not? If nothing else, it was something fun we could do to fill up at least one of the long, unstructured days of summer break.

I asked the girls which language they would like to learn--French, Spanish, or Mandarin?  I posed the same question on Facebook, curious what direction my friends thought we should take.

I did not ask my husband.

I did not ask him because I knew he would vote for Spanish. Anthony is fluent in Spanish. He is a first-generation American, his mother from El Salvador and his father from Costa Rica. My children should speak Spanish, but they don't. And that is mostly my fault. I should have had Anthony and his parents only speak to the girls in Spanish, but I didn't. I am not really sure why we neglected to take this approach, but it probably had something to do with the fact that I didn't want to feel left out. 

And so, here we are, a mother and her three daughters who, despite being surrounded by native Spanish speakers, have only a Dora the Explorer proficiency in Spanish.

You will probably have guessed by now that I signed the girls up for Spanish classes at Language Stars. But you will have guessed wrong.

We signed up for French.

I will answer the "why French?" question in my next post.  So far, we have had three classes with ClĂ©mentine  and we are in love! The total immersion approach was daunting...for about five minutes.  And then the girls jumped in headlong. Clementine's blend of sing-song, repetition, facial expressions, hand-gestures, and hands-on interaction with various toys and objects draws the girls in in a way that is both fun and familiar to them, as we use similar methods in our day to day schoolwork. As I scribble away in my notebook, jotting down phrases to reinforce at home, worrying about what verb tense I'm using or whether to use the masculine or feminine article, my girls are merely enthralled with the experience, enjoying their time with Clementine, and barely aware that this is, technically, school.


As I watched them in their first class, I was reminded of a conversation I overheard between Bronte and Chloe two summers ago. Anthony's father was visiting from Central America along with his wife, Olga, whose English is as limited as my Spanish.  At the time, Bronte was 7 and Chloe was 5 and they were upstairs with Olga, Bronte trying to ask her if she could sew a missing button on to a shirt. I don't remember exactly how Olga responded, but it was not an answer that fit with the question asked. It was in that moment, after years of summer visits, that Bronte realized for the first time it seemed, that she and Olga did not speak the same language. 

"You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you?" Bronte stated, more than asked.

I froze, caught between marveling at this moment of recognition and horrified that my child sounded so rude.

Before I could say anything, Chloe jumped in, affronted.

"Well! She understands me! We talk all the time and she understands everything I'm saying!"

It was true. In her five year old way, uninhibited and full of expression, Chloe had whole conversations with Olga and understood her in return. She was unaware of a "language barrier" and therefore was not hindered by it.

Thinking back on this moment and observing the girls with Clementine, I understand why my sister had insisted I introduce the girls to a foreign language "now." Yes, biologically, now is the perfect time, while the language centers in their brains are thriving. 

But, it's more than that. 

Now, they are thrilled with difference, not alienated by it. Now, they are excited by challenges, not intimidated by them. Now, they are eager and open and enthusiastic. These are the things I want for them, not just for language studies, but for all learning; not just now, while they are children, but for life.

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