Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Learning, and Teaching, Languages

Yesterday's blog talked about my use of a giant whiteboard for reviewing and learning facts related to current school lessons, and I pointed out that right now most of the board deals with the four different foreign languages my five children are learning (not 4 each, but each learning a different language, and 2 learning the same one).

TEXAUS MOMMA left this comment:
I'd love to know what programs you use for foreign languages! I'd love to learn spanish (for my children too) and have thought about Rosetta, but it is so expensive! But I want to be fluent. Maybe other languages one day too....

First a joke:
Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingual

Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language?

A: American

And here is my lengthy answer:

There are a few things that we use for each language, but before I talk about that, I want to talk about learning foreign languages in general, and how to best learn a language generally speaking. I say this as one who speaks German fluently, and who has a good working knowledge of French (studied 6 years), Latin (4 years), New Testament Greek (2 years), and who tends to pick up on any language I listen to over several continuous days. I also "speak" several computer languages. I have always loved languages and travel, and I have learned some good practices over the years for learning languages, and helping your children learn languages.

These different areas (Conversational, Vocabulary, Grammar, and Applying what you've Learned) are all supposed to be taught by Rosetta Stone programs. My husband saved and surpised us with Rosetta Stone German about 5 years ago, and I have been disappointed. I am not sure if the newer versions are better, but as someone who has successfully learned languages in the past, I have a hard time imagining why this is so successful. My kids thought it was boring. The speaking part of it (where it tests your pronunciation) was a joke --my son, who had a speech impediment, was the only one who it said pronounced things correctly. A visiting friend from Germany also "failed". It doesn't start off with useful words and phrases but inane sound bites like, "Under the plane" (very useful, huh?). We never got past the first few lessons so I can't tell you if it improves as you progress. It would only pass along my son because he could pronounce things "correctly".

The idea behind Rosetta is very teach these four areas, and to test you on it. Maybe the new homeschool version is better at this than the version we have. I like that you can set up different students. I liked the repetition (very important), but it just was a bit of a chore to get through, and you walked away, after a few lessons, still not able to say "Hi. How are you? " or anything useful. "The Boy is under the Plane" only comes up so many times in normal conversation ;).

1. Conversational Language comes first on the list. This is learning to communicate in that language. "Hi. How are you?" "I am fine, thank you." "Where is the bathroom?" and other important phrases for travelers. In this brilliant modern day in which we live, we have many options open to learning this sort of conversational language:
  • Podcasts are usually FREE (my favorite price and yours), and as far as Spanish goes, you have hundreds, if not thousands to choose from. These are essentially on demand, downloadable radio shows. Some are audio only and a few are in video. You can find podcasts by searching "Learn Spanish Podcasts" in a web browser, or by downloading iTunes, and opening up the iTunes Store, and searching "Learn Spanish Podcasts". iTunes does have it's own file format, so you can only listen on the computer, download to an iPod, or convert to a CD within iTunes (make a playlist, and then hit "Burn CD" in the lower right corner). You may also use a converter like to turn it into MP3's to load to a normal mp3 player or phone. That's what I do.

  • Books for Travelers are also useful for learning these phrases. My favorite series is the "Learn ____in 10 Minutes a day" though the title is misleading. As one who has learned languages, it will take more dedication than just 10 minutes of your time to really LEARN a language! Still, this series will give you some basics. I have found those at libraries.

  • Computer Games usually are vocabulary oriented but you can sometimes find some different conversational-type programs out there. We have found French and Italian at Office Depot, on their "2 for $9.99" rack. There is quite bit of vocabulary in them, but also some basic conversational helps.

Most of these conversational things are generally not made for children in most of the languages, but I did notice there is quite a bit for both Spanish and Chinese. By learning how to say some basic phrases in a language, you can start to develop a feel for it. I recommend, as early as possible, learn to say "How do you say ____?" and "What does ____ mean?" in the language of your choice. It's very helpful.

2. Vocabulary building is another important step in learning a language. The best way to learn vocabulary is to learn words that mean something to you, which you use every day. Many of these books on the market are geared toward business travellers who are arriving in Shanghai and need to get a taxi and other things that mean nothing to a 10 year old. We need MEANINGFUL vocabulary, because if you use it, you won't lose it.
  • Removeable Stickers like what you use for a garage sale. How do you say refrigerator in Spanish? Write it down, and stick it on your refrigerator, and say it three times each time you open the door. How do you say salt and pepper? Stickers on your shakers. This works. Those "10 Minutes a Day" books come with removeable stickers in them -- one of their better features, making up for the "how to hail a taxi in Shanghai" in other parts of the book.

  • A good English-Whatever dictionary for looking up words, not for memorizing starting in "A". Check the Amazon Marketplace that the end of most college semesters, when the college freshmen are unloading their unwanted books after taking their mandatory year of foreign language. When learning vocabulary, by the way, learn the GENDER of a noun, and the PLURAL FORM too. This is found in most dictionaries. Most European languages (except English) assign Gender to nouns, and the genders don't always make sense (Girl in German, for example, is an "it"). I have found it easier to learn this with the word, even if my program doesn't teach it. For a child, if this is confusing, just skip it for now.

  • A Children's Illustrated Dictionary in the target language is a great buy. You can also find these at the Amazon Marketplace used. I paid a penny for ours in Chinese. This dictionary has pictures of familiar items (dog, cat, sister, brother, chair, table, fork, etc.) with how to say it in the target language. I KNOW They have at least 10 different ones like this in Spanish. There is a whole shelf at Barnes and Noble in the kids' section!

  • A Preschool Computer Program in the target language. You want something that isn't "how to learn Spanish" but one that is in Spanish for Spanish-speaking kids (or whatever language). For Spanish, you will likely find this easily, for other languages, you'll need to dig deeper. I have a German Preschool game that is designed to help German-speaking children learn their colors, numbers, shapes, clothing items, and so forth, and it is completely in German, including the instructions. This helped Isobel learn far more than anything else, because the instructions, while in German, were logical, and it helped her get used to what they were saying.

  • Books in the Target Language are useful after you have a good start on learning a language. Reading a familiar book (like "The Giving Tree" in another language helps you learn vocabulary and get a feel for syntax. Audio books (sometimes found online for free or cheap) are also very useful in this regard. This is good for building your vocabulary after you know the sorts of words you use everyday like names of food, how to say "door" and things like that.

Building vocabulary takes time, and is an ever growing process, as it is in your mother tongue. I am still learning new words! :-)

3. Grammar is not anyone's favorite, I'm sure. However, as we grow in our understanding of a language, we realize it is not just knowing the right words but knowing how to use them. Chinese doesn't have much, if any grammar (the characters and the four tones make up for this blessing), but nearly every other language has important grammatical things to learn, like how to conjugate a verb, what word endings to put on what words and when, word order in a sentence, and so forth.
  • Verb Conjgations are best learned when you learn the verb itself. Most verbs in most languages are "regular" verbs meaning they follow a standard pattern. Some verbs are "irregular" and need to be memorized. When you learn a verb, if it is irregular, you should also learn the conjugation. There is a book called "501 Spanish Verbs" (available in nearly every language imaginable which will help you. Again, this is one that college students are usually hocking on Amazon Marketplace in late May each year.
  • A Grammar Textbook for your target language is also good to find. I like the ind that have exercises in them, for you to practice and then to review. I find these helpful, especially for a young person, only after a good foundation in the language has been laid. It's bor-ing, and I think it would discourage you just starting out. Wait til you know some Spanish.

4. Use what you have learned in order to keep it. I took 6 years of French, and it is all in there somewhere (it does come back after a while) but I can't easily or fluently talk to anyone in French. I only had 2 years of German, but having lived in Austria and Germany for a total of about 3 years, I do speak that fluently. I used it in real-life situations. I still read the online news in German, and I download German sermons from church websites in Germany to keep my mind fresh. If you don't use what you have learned, it will fall out while you're sleeping hee hee.

  • READing in your Language will help you continue to develop vocabulary and to keep your mind fresh. In this internet age, this is easier to do than back in the day when we were in school. Most major world newspapers, and some not so major, are on the internet. There are websites in every language imaginable. you can even access the Bible in foreign languages at Bible Gateway.
  • LISTENing in your language will help you to continue to develop your listening skills. This is easily done through podcasts, online sermons, music albums in your language (check iTunes!), and other mostly free sources

  • TALKING in your language is also important. Living, apparently in Texas, I would imagine you have a mountain of Spanish speaking folks right at your doorstep. I'm sure you may find a few of them who also want to learn English. What a tradeoff! Maybe a momma like you at the park, with her children, all speaking Spanish...if you know a little bit of Spanish, maybe a friendship might ensue, one that benefits you both. My daughter loves to speak Chinese with the waitresses at the local Chinese buffet whenever we go (we don't eat out this opportunity is seldom taken advantage of...), but I suppose the same could be done at a local Mexican restaurant. I have found that the majority of people (except residents of Paris apparently -- no offense to Parisian readers, if there are any out there) are flattered when you try to speak their language, and they are usually accommodating, and willing to help. Additionally, you and your family can have a "Spanish Only Day" where the whole family speaks Spanish as much as possible, and where they have to ask in Spanish how to say something if they don't know the word.

  • WRITING in the Language will help you develop your handle on a language, using it in practical ways. Traditionally this means pen pals. Missionary kids living in lands that speak the language you are learning may also be a good potential pen pal, able to communicate both in the foreign language and English, and also happy to get mail from another child back home. you can also practice numbers, as we do by writing "Today is Wednesday, January 14th, 2009" for each day of the will know your days, months years, and numbers to 31 very well in a few months.

Programs we Use for Learning Languages

Ruth is in 10th grade and learning French. She is using Bob Jones French 1 right now, as well as a French Podcast ("The French PodClass", which also has printable lessons), a French CD-Rom game from Office Depot (simply called "FRENCH"), and reading in her French Bible. I also like "The Easy French", and they have a program called "The Easy Spanish" too.

Judah is in 8th Grade and Esther is in 5th Grade, and they both were interested in learning Italian. We have not found as much information for learning Italian, other than ItalianPod Podcast, and a CD Rom called "Speak Italian". We recently downloaded some free program from, which also has paid programs too.

Anastasia is in 6th Grade and has been studying Chinese for three years at her insistence. I was hesitant about this as I don't speak Chinese, and i have heard it is hard. The hardest part is certainly the pronunciation and the four tones of each vowel. The Characters are surprisingly easy and logical, once you have learned some basic radicals. We have found a HEAP of Chinese books for kids, including one published by DK. She is starting in a college-level textbook called "Integrated Chinese" which we found on Amazon Marketplace. She also has several books for learning basic Characters (radicals) and a Chinese in 10 Minutes A Day book (though this doesn't cover characters at all, only pinyin.). We have also found some sweet ladies at the Chinese restaurant and a few missionaries who are kind enough to help her progress.

Isobel is in 4th grade and wants to speak German. She is the only one who continues to plod through Rosetta Stone, but also reads the host of German children's books i have, listen to German Audiobooks, and the whole family used to enjoy the video podcast "My German Class with Herrn Nelson", which will make you laugh and learn at the same time, but sadly no longer available unless you are a part of the Colorado school system. :( I also have a reproduceable worksheet book in German (called "Elementary German Worksheets").

1 comment:


Thank you so much! WOW... LOL You did a great job, and have given me much to think about. I am thinking we may just start at the library and make this a family affair! I like the idea of labeling everything too. You have been such a big help, and I surely appreciate you!