Bosley, the Language Bear

Why Language Learning at a High School Level Doesn’t Work

high-school language learning

Learning a second language can have a lot of advantages, especially when using it for business purposes, sharing ideas and opinions or simply in making new friends.  Unfortunately, learning a new language can also be very challenging.  Early language learning while we are young children is generally most beneficial and has been proven to be the best way to obtain and retain proper grammar and pronunciation skills as early learners’ minds are impressionable enough to easily accept this new language as a part of their core developmental skill set.  As adults, we recognize the value in learning a language and can accomplish the task of becoming fluent through hard work and dedication, knowing what impact our efforts will have on our daily lives, and how this skill will eventually enrich our jobs and relationships and increase the number of opportunities that present themselves.

Just as it is hard to imagine what it feels like to go swimming if you have never been, at the age of a high school student it can be difficult to see the benefit and impact a second language will have to improving your life.  And equally difficult is it to actually utilize the amount of cognitive capacity it takes to commit an entire new language to memory, and on top of that, to actually implement that linguistic knowledge in an environment where it can be applied, challenged, and, most importantly, practiced regularly.

The amount of barriers to entry for a high school student to learn a second language pile up faster than you can imagine!  And yet this is when the majority of second languages are taught in public schools.  Also, they are generally offered as a required course thereby eliminating any sort of self-motivated factor that is essential to retaining this magnitude of information.  Without specific job prospects, relationships or travel plans in mind, it would be difficult for anyone to muster the self-motivation required for learning a second language.  At the high school level, kids are simply saturated with so many new opportunities and potential paths that language learning is easy to overlook, especially given the above barriers to entry.

If you want your child to learn a second language, unless you want them to wait until they are grown to realize and implement the self-motivating factors for themselves, it is important to be that motivating factor as a parent.  Give them reasons to learn, reasons to be curious, give them insight into foreign cultures, foreign sights and sounds and let their insatiable childhood curiosity be the relentless engine driving their language learning vessel.

Alternatively, however, just to reassure you that your high school student is not a lost cause, if your child is in high school and just beginning a language learning course for the first time, it is important to encourage them and help them identify the self-motivating factors for themselves.  The important thing to note here is that your motivating factors may wildly differ from their motivating factors.  If you can help them realize their own motivation for learning a language and they will undoubtedly have the capacity to learn and and retain their second language as they transition to adulthood, given that they have the appropriate practical outlets for practicing and nurturing their new skill.

Vocal Dexterity and the Baby Babble

Doggie

“Dawwww-DEE!”

Silly, silly toddlers.  Yes, the twins are now old enough (15 months) to be considered toddlers!  Their favorite word by far is “doggy”, pronounced “daawww-DEE!” With a strong accent on the second syllable, and usually followed by the same word again and again.  They’re definitely catching on to the fact that they are on to something and they’re having fun making sounds that they get recognition for.  We read to them every night and and talk to the constantly.  Our nanny is a Spanish teacher so they’re getting a good amount of exposure to Spanish, and I do my best to speak to them in Japanese and associate new words with objects they already know.

One of the things that feels the most important at this stage is getting their little vocal chords making new and different sounds.  It’s amazing to listen to the sounds they come up with and they are very proud when they discover a new vowel or consonant sound.  You can see the wheels turning as they explore their capabilities and try to match what you say.  Oliver came out with his version of the word for “cheese” the other day, pronounced “Ghi!” (with an exclamation point).  Nope, it’s not even close but he’s proud as punch that he can say it and he takes a few seconds before he says it to form his mouth into the right shape.

Since they are trying so hard right now to replicate what we say, I think it’s important to make strange noises that challenge them in that way.  Not just English sounds, and not just foreign words, but also completely ridiculous sounds and babbles that make them really wonder about all the sounds they can make.  Not only is it fun (and ridiculously cute) but it’s a great way for them to exercise their little vocal chords in a way that will hopefully make speaking many different languages much easier as they continue to develop.

Repeating their babbles back to them can be construed as “baby talk” and I don’t think that that is always constructive.  Rather, I think that providing the opportunity for them to hear real words and sounds is probably best for their vocabulary.  However, I do think it teaches them that there is value in repeating what others say.  If they hear me repeating their noises, they will be more likely to try to repeat my noises (words).  Additionally, the vocal dexterity that they will gain by making silly noises and experimenting with their capabilities will serve as a constant reminder to them of the variety of sounds they are capable of.  It’s my hope that second languages with different vowel sounds, different consonants and different intonation will not be quite as foreign if we maintain this level of vocal dexterity practice.