Brazilian Mission

Posted on | June 3, 2011 | 4 Comments

In about a week time, I will be heading to São Paulo, Brazil to begin my 8-week Brazilian mission.

Back in mid-February this year when I was assigned to a Brazilian project at work, I had no prior knowledge of Portuguese and I had no intention to learn the language. I had no friends or relatives living in Brazil. I was not interested in the Brazilian culture. I was not even interested in going there.

The project plan was that if things go well, I will be on-site with the customer in June for a few weeks. Of course, there is no requirement for me to learn Portuguese. Business will be contacted in English. Documents are expected to be translated. So why would I want to learn Portuguese? I asked myself.

I believe learning a language is more than to satisfy your desire to communicate. It helps you to understand another culture. During my stay in São Paulo, rather than just being a tourist and visting tourist sites, I want to be able to figure out what is going on around me as much as possible. I want to observe how local people go about their daily lives. I believe knowing the local language to some extend will help me to accomplish this. So I decided to jump right into Portuguese.

Time-wise… I just don’t have time. I could allocate less than an hour a day on average in language learning, that is, juggling around French, Spanish, and now Portuguese. I had less than four months to learn as much Portuguese as I could before getting thrown into the environment. But then having concrete target date and environment speeds things up a lot. I didn’t waste time asking insignificant questions like “what accent should I acquire?” or “what is the different between Portuguese from Brazil and Portuguese from Portugal?”. I just jumped right into the language (picking Brazilian Portuguese and Paulistano accent). Nor would I spend time on blogging about my learning progress or methodologies I would be experimenting (I might summarize my approaches and materials in a future post though).

What is the goal of my Brazilian mission? Of course, to accomplish what I am paid to do in my job. There are language enthusiasts out there who have the luxury of staying in foreign countries for months, doing nothing else but learning the local languages. But for me, I am not paid to go to Brazil to learn a language. I have business tasks to accomplish, so I am expected to speak English during business hours. I am also advised not to go out at night for safety reasons. Hence, I won’t have a lot of off-work hours to mingle with the locals.

What is my language-related goal then? One thing for sure. I will not become fluent in Portuguese in such a short period of time. Language learning takes time (and I know the world does not want to hear this). I guess my goal is to be able to love the language and the culture of Brazil. It is also my intention to maintain and improve the language after this mission.

Oh another goal. Hopefully, I will be able to order food in Portuguese!

Fluent in 3 weeks

Posted on | May 13, 2011 | 19 Comments

So you want to become fluent in a language in 3 weeks? Honestly, I don’t think this is possible. Language learning takes time.

Sorry, wrong answer! This is not what people want to hear. Some “language learning guru” says you can do it in just a few months.

Ok, I will try again. I am not a language learning guru, but I will try to act like one.

Well, how about redefining the meaning of ‘fluency’? What is the definition of ‘fluency’ in the dictionary? Actually, I don’t care as I am going to redefine it anyway.

Let’s say, by being ‘fluent’ I want to get by and carry out the essential routines of my daily life by using the target language only. Since at the minimum I cannot survive without food. I need to interact with people in order to get food. Therefore, my own definition of fluency is “to be able to order food in a natural manner, using the language easily and accurately”.

My advice to you is therefore to get yourself a phrase book and learn how to order food. For the next 3 weeks, go out and practice ordering food from the native speakers. You may begin by buying stuff from the grocery stores, then move on to ordering food in the food courts and fast food restaurants. When you are confident, try to tackle the fancy restaurants.

Remember, gesture and other forms of non-verbal communication are also important. Make sure you use you finger correctly and point to the correct picture in the menu when ordering.

I also encourage you to go and take some official language examinations. Remember to tell other people that you ‘sit’ the exam, so you don’t necessarily need to pass it.

Who told you that you cannot speak from day 1? Of course you can! “Day 1” is the day when you would start speaking. Preparation time does not count!

You may ask: As language enthusiasts, shouldn’t we aim for more depth in a language?

Well, if you are a language enthusiast, there are more than 6000 languages in the world waiting for you to explore. Don’t spend too much time on each one. Besides, I bet your sole intention of wanting to learn languages in such a short time is to “show off”! You just want to learn the language quickly, party with some native speakers, show it off to people around you, then forget it. You don’t really care about knowing the culture and people in depth. You just want to be a “language tourist”!

Follow my approach and become fluent in 3 weeks. In fact, you may be able to do it in just 2 weeks. But then I never guarantee your success. By the way, the title of my post was chosen arbitrarily. I don’t promise anything.

How dare you call me a fraud! Read my post carefully and don’t take things out of context! I write this post to help and encourage others. Don’t you see my good intention here?!

Speaking Too Early is a Waste of Time

Posted on | February 8, 2011 | 25 Comments

The result (or “interim result” as some might put it) of Keith‘s now-famous “TV Method” experiment has recently sparked numerous discussions and fierce debates in the online language learning communities.

Some people are even taking this as a proof to proclaim that “silent period” is a waste of time. In my opinion, the experiment is more for measuring the effectiveness of “natural input” (versus “comprehensible input”) than that of the “silent period”.

I believe having an initial “silent period” is much more effective than spending time and effort speaking in the beginning stage. Before going into my arguments, let me first clear some misunderstandings of the “silent period”:

  1. “Silent period” is not passive
    It is not a time in which the learner sits back, slacks off, and isolates himself from the native speakers. Instead, this is a critical moment when the learner actively absorbs sounds, vocabulary, and patterns of the new language by doing intensive input activities, such as reading, listening to the radio, watching TV in the target language, and even listening to native speakers speaking among themselves. Most parts of the input must be comprehensible, or made comprehensible by explanations (the “TV Method” does not satisfy this condition).
  2. “Silent period” is not an unbreakable fixed period of time
    The length is completely arbitrary and it is up to individual learners. Some people set it to 3 months, some 6 months, and some 2000 hours. ALG sets it to 800 hours. If the learner finds he is more ready to speak than planned, he can by all means break the silence at any time.
  3. One does not attain fluency at the end of the “silent period”
    No one can become fluent by working on input only. After the “silent period”, you still need to put in a lot of work on speaking and writing. Advocates of the “silent period” believe that they will play a better “catch up” and will eventually produce better results (in terms of accent and fluency).
  4. “Silent period” is not anti-social
    “Silent period” does not forbid learners to interact with native speakers. It is just that you are not forced to speak their language with them. On the contrary, you should be able to understand more about their culture by spending time absorbing it from TV, radio, books, music, and other media. You are also being considerate by not torturing them with your Tarzan language (read below).

Speaking in the beginning stage is way different from speaking in the intermediate stage. In the beginning stage, you don’t even have chance to stumble or make errors. You just speak like Tarzan. At first, people might find you enthusiastic or even entertaining. When you insist on speaking like that, you will just become annoying to them. Of course they won’t say this in front of you.

Regardless of what the native speakers think of your Tarzan language, speaking too early is not effective for your own language learning. Here are the reasons:

  1. There is nothing much to say
    You cannot say more than you know. At the beginning, you simply have nothing much to say. You may apply some phrases you just learned from your favourite phrasebook, but you won’t be able to understand the responses from the native speakers. So you go back and learn some more phrases, or simply move on and find other victims to practice the same phrases again.
  2. The time could be well spent on absorbing the language yourself
    You may plan to extract words or phrases from the native speakers by talking to them. You would probably ask a lot of questions like “what does this mean?” or “how do you say this in your language?” I would argue that it is much more time-saving just to look them up yourself. The native speakers also deserve more respect than being treated as walking dictionaries.
  3. It produces high anxiety
    Speaking in the beginning stage gives you high anxiety. According to the “affective filter” theory, this significantly hinders your learning process.
  4. It could mess up your accent
    One thing I notice from Keith is that although he is still a beginner in speaking, he already has a pretty good accent (the native speaker in his second speech also noticed this). Many linguists will tell you that a good accent is hard to acquire, no matter how much time you spend on working on it. “Silent period” allows the learner to internalize the correct sounds of the language before forming habits of producing bad sounds, thus reducing the chance of fossilization.

The initial period of learning a language is crucial to you. It is the time you lay your solid foundation. Do not waste it on speaking like Tarzan and annoying innocent people. Having said that, when you are ready, make no excuse to prolong your silent period. It is easy to fall into the trap of avoiding speaking. You are often more ready than you think. Seek help and motivation on overcoming your shyness.

Las Escuelas de Inmersión en Francés

Posted on | February 4, 2011 | 3 Comments

Spanish Friday (This is a “Spanish Friday” post. Here is the English version, according to the Fish)

Tracy en ha tenido una buena idea: “Spanish Friday“. Así que voy a escribir esta entrada en español.

Hoy Roxana decidió no enviar su hija a una escuela bilingüe, porque había algunos problemas. Es muy decepcionante para Roxana. Siendo un padre yo mismo, entiendo totalmente sus sentimientos. Aquí en Toronto (y sé que pasa lo mismo en Vancouver), los padres son ambiciosos y tratan de enviar sus hijos a las escuelas de inmersión en francés.

Me dijeron que la escuela de inmersión en francés cerca de mi casa es tan popular que en los años pasados los padres comenzaban a formarse para el registro a las cinco de la mañana. Este año, han cambiado las reglas. Un proceso aleatorio computarizado va a hacer la asignación de escuelas. A los niños se les garantiza los lugares, pero es posible que no se le asigne a su escuela de preferencia. Mi esposa y yo acabamos de inscribir a nuestra hija, para probar nuestra suerte. Ojalá tengamos suerte que quede en la escuela que queremos.

Las escuelas de inmersión en francés adoptan una forma diferente a las escuelas bilingües en los EEUU. Todas las instrucciones se realizan en francés. Por supuesto, esta manera da muchos desafíos a los estudiantes viviendo en un ambiente inglés (la mayoría no tienen padres o familiares que hablen francés). Esto es porque este tipo de escuelas se consideran para la élite, y es por eso que los padres están tan ansiosos de inscribir a sus hijos en estas escuelas.

El francés es un idioma muy político en Canadá. Los quebequenses luchan muy duro por la supervivencia de su idioma. Tratan de promocionar su idioma en otras provincias inglesas haciendo todo tipo de actividades. Siempre me pregunto una cosa. ¿Por qué sus servicios de tutoría son tan caros? ¿Por qué no ofrecen las clases de francés gratis? Sé que hay una organización que empieza a dar las clases gratuitas para la gente con dificultades financieras. Este es sin duda un buen comienzo.

Pass On Your Heritage Languages

Posted on | January 26, 2011 | 8 Comments

Immigrant parents! Pass on your heritage languages no matter what!

I was sitting in McDonald’s one day and saw two Chinese mothers chatting with each other in Mandarin. They then turned and spoke to their kids in English. These kids were only toddlers, not like those immigrant teens who already made up their minds not to speak their heritage languages. It seemed like the parents deliberately avoided passing their heritage languages on to the next generation.

In fact, I see similar situations quite often, not confining to one ethic group. For a long time I could not figure out why they would do such thing. A thread recently came up in the HTLAL forums titled “Undelivered language heritage” discusses exactly the same issue. A few theories have been formulated:

  1. The parents find this task extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
  2. The parents don’t want their kids to feel embarrassed in public (this post in SpanglishBaby gives a real-life example)
  3. The parents have a miserable past and want to erase any trace of their heritage in order to start a new life.

For any responsible parent, the first two reasons are totally unacceptable. I have nothing more to say about them.

As for the last reason, I don’t think I am in the position to argue, as I don’t have a miserable past. People do not leave their homelands to settle in some foreign places without a reason. If you do want to leave behind your past and have decided not to pass your heritage language on to your kids, please consider again. What would they feel when they grow up? Here are some real quotes from the same HTLAL thread:

… my mother told me that when she was young her mother would speak flemish with her parents (so my mother’s grand parents) so the children weren’t able to understand.
… i feel pretty mad at the moment, …

I had a friend in school whose parents both spoke Urdu, and he was always annoyed that his parents never taught him it when he was younger.

… my great grand parents spoke Pennsylvania “Dutch”, … of course it was never passed on to us, and I feel that a part of my heritage is lost, especially since this dialect is named for the state in which I was born and reside!

My dad can speak Italian but he never taught any to me :( I wish I could speak it because I feel excluded when he speaks to my grandparents in Italian.

It is a shame, as when I meet some relatives I cannot communicate. Later the older generation dies out not really knowing the younger generation. It is a sad thing indeed.

… I really wish my parents had taught me Platt/Plattdüütsch … . Both my parents … never spoke to us children in Platt, … . It is kind of sad how regional languages are slowly dying out.

The only language in my family, other then English, was Hungarian by way of my great grandmother. And she failed to teach it to my grandmother, so it was lost there. It always makes me sad to hear of people who have parents that don’t pass down a family language, such a shame…

My paternal grandpa grew up in Wisconsin speaking only Finnish. He … didn’t teach it to any of his kids. I really wish he would have and my dad would have taught my sisters and me. I’ve always wanted to speak Finnish.

You may ask “How?” Well, I believe if there is a will, there is a way.

Hyperpolyglot Who Speaks 59 Languages

Posted on | January 22, 2011 | 4 Comments

Yesterday I was contacted by someone who claimed to speak 59 languages and he was only 18 years old!

My first reaction was: Really?! Well, ‘speak’ is a vague term. In fact, he admitted up front that he was not fluent in all of them.

Before jumping into any conclusion of my own, I did some quick research on him. His name is Cesare Monteleone, and has been around in the HTLAL forums for a few months. He also has his own YouTube channel. You can watch him speaking 41 languages in this video. (I found that Cesare sometimes removes posts and deletes Internet accounts, so don’t be surprised if the link is broken)

I have no way to verify if he does indeed speak all the languages he claimed, though I can recognize the ones I know. Judging from the YouTube and HTLAL feedbacks, Cesare does seem to speak most of them, though with heavy accents and grammatical errors. It is also difficult to tell how much depth he has in each language.

Cesare honestly told me that he had caused problems in the forums in the past by pushing people to believe he could speak those languages, so he is not going to make any claim in public anymore. According to this video, he believed he had offended some YouTube members, so he decided not to make any more videos. I don’t know the whole story and he could have possibly offended someone. But I felt sad. I still praised him for making those videos and encouraged him to make more in the future.

I am not going to pass judgment on Cesare’s claim. It is not the point of this post. What I really want to say is that, as a language learning community, we should encourage each other, even though sometimes people make bold claims. I read the comments from both HTLAL and YouTube, most of them are indeed very encouraging to Cesare. But you never know. Just one or two offensive comments are what it needs to ruin the ego of a language learner.

Here is a typical pattern. When somebody makes a claim that he can speak many languages, people would ask for proof (usually in form of video). This is perfectly fine. But then after the video is done, people would pass skeptical opinions, such as the guy could have just memorized the lines. So they would ask for real Skype conversations. Then they would criticize on his pronunciation and grammar. What I think we should do instead is give encouragement. Congratulate the person for his effort at least!

Some ‘ninja’ recently made a video on YouTube calling Khatzumoto a scam. I think Moses said it all in this response video. Be humble and respect each other. This is how we should build our language learning community.

Best Way to Improve Writing

Posted on | January 19, 2011 | 12 Comments

The best way to improve writing is … to read more.

This morning someone from Taiwan pinged me in Skype. I could not remember why she was on my contact list. I probably added her a few years ago when I was trying to improve my Mandarin.

She told me she wanted to improve her English writing skill, and asked if I knew any native English speakers who would like to be her Chinese/English language exchange penpal. I simply told her to read more, and I guaranteed her that by doing so her writing would improve tremendously.

I used to have a few penpals some years ago when I tried to work on my French writing. My writing was so poor at that time that I struggled a lot. I would basically write the text in English, let Google Translate to do the initial translation (back then it was still using the old translation engine). Then I would make corrections and polish it up before sending it out.

Personally, I am not a fan of language penpal. It is not an effective method to improve your writing. Regardless of your writing skill, there are fundamental problems with language penpal.

We cannot improve writing by writing
No matter how much you write, you cannot write better than your existing knowledge of the language. This is true for both your native and non-native languages. If you are poor in the language, you just cannot write more to improve it. You first need to read more to build your vocabulary and gain better proficiency in the language.

The alternative way is to read more. Stephen Krashen in his book “The Power of Reading” quoted scientific studies which prove that writing more does not improve writing. Instead, writing style comes from reading. Reading can also help building vocabulary.

Correcting mistakes is no fun
With language penpal, you are supposed to correct mistakes made by the other person so that he will learn from them. He is supposed to do the same for you. But correcting mistakes is not a fun thing to do, neither is reading broken sentences. You have already put in a lot of effort to write, now you have to spend time correcting. It is not a wise way to spend your language learning time. If you just want your writing to be corrected, why not try crowd-sourcing the task?

Artificial communication won’t last
If there is no genuine interest to communicate between the penpals except for language learning, you will soon run of of topics to discuss. One or both sides will drop very soon due to boredom.

Having said that, if any reader thinks that he has a “genuine interest” in becoming a penpal of my Taiwanese friend, let me know.

Speaking Practice Amongst Learners

Posted on | January 11, 2011 | 6 Comments

Today, I had a chance to speak over Skype with Milan, the die-hard Cantonese learner. It must have been more than 3 years since we last talked. Back then we spoke in English and Cantonese. This time our conversation was purely in French and it lasted for more than an hour!

When Milan proposed this idea, I wondered since we both were learners of the language, how could this possibly benefit us at all? I accepted his ‘challenge’ anyhow, and it turned out to be a wonderful practice to me.

A Chinese immigrant fluent in English once told me that when he was still in university back in China, they had a so-called “English corner”. Chinese students who wanted to improve their English would gather at one place (not necessarily a corner) at a certain time of the week and spoke English to each other. He claimed that it helped him a lot with his English.

I was sceptical when I first heard about the idea. Who is going to correct our errors? How can we improve our accents? Shouldn’t we always aim to learn from native speakers?

Yes, we should learn from native speakers (and if you are not at an advanced level, you should consider getting a paid tutor), but there seem to be other benefits too when learners are willing to practice speaking with each other.

Build Confidence
To many learners, speaking with native speakers can be somewhat intimidating. Speaking with a learner, on the other hand, can be much less stressful and hence easier to build your confidence. Remember, the main objective of this exercise is not to seek out errors, but to build up each other.

Language learning is a long journey, and for sure, we need comrades all along. This is like signing up for some weight loss program together. We kick each other’s behind and say, “Let’s do it together! We can make it!”

I was inspired by Milan when I spoke to him, not only in the area of learning French, but language learning as a whole. This guy is serious. He spends at least 6 hours a day learning languages!

Milan started (or restarted since childhood) his French last year, and he felt a bit discouraged about his progress. Hopefully, the fact that he started later than I did, and yet sounded more fluent than me (at least he stumbled less) would have motivated him, too!

Easy Vocabulary
Compared to native speakers, language learners tend to speak slower, clearer, use less slangs and easier vocabulary. This helps the conversation to flow better. Suddenly, you seem to understand a lot more than with native speakers. Now the flow gets smoother, you can say more things and get into deeper discussions about the topics.

Less correction
Learners tend to correct each other less frequently than a tutor would, and this creates less interruptions in the conversation.

Corrections are necessary, but doing corrections at the expense of interrupting a conversation is often annoying and discouraging. If you have enough input practices, you don’t really need corrections during output practices. The corrections are basically ‘reminders’ of what you have already known.

Learn from each other’s mistakes
We learn from our own mistakes, but better still if we can learn from each other’s mistakes as well.

This process can be reflexive, too. You might be used to saying something one way, but then you hear the other person saying it differently. Provided you have a lot of input practices, you sense right away that he sounds more correct than you do. You learn your mistake and correct yourself ‘naturally’ without your feeling getting hurt.

More Economical
An hour-long conversation would typically cost $20US or more with a tutor. Now, you get it for free (provided we don’t charge each other, and we should not). Your counterpart also gets it free. So together you save more than $40US!

One important thing to keep in mind though. Both learners must be able to conduct basic conversations. Otherwise, it would be counterproductive. A few years ago, I met an Italian through Skypecast. He could not speak English and I could not speak Italian. We ended up speaking French, which happened to be the least inconvenient language between us. But then our French was so broken that it turned out to be such a torture to both of us. I still cannot understand even today how it could last for 20 minutes. There was no way it could have given us any benefit at all.

Speaking Tips

Posted on | December 31, 2010 | 1 Comment

Speak when you are ready, not when you ‘think’ you are ready. You are probably more ready to speak than you think you are.

Yes, please honour the “silent period” and focus on input activities. But if you have already put in a lot of hours listening and reading, but feel uncomfortable moving on to speaking, this post is for you.

Quite often your “silent period” is much shorter than you perceive. You might think you need more listening practices in order to understand. You might think you need to acquire more vocabulary in order to compose your replies. In really, you don’t need to understand everything to conduct an intelligent conversation with a native speaker, and you need much less vocabulary than you think.

About 2 months ago, I attended a home dinner and met a lady from Argentina who could barely speak English. We managed to have a few minutes of conversation in Spanish, though I could only understand about half of what she said. This was actually not that difficult to do. Here are some tips and tricks.

Common conversational protocols
Everyday we rely on common protocols in our conversations without noticing them. For example, a common protocol to end a conversation is:

A: Have a nice day!
B: You too!

These lines should help you start and end the conversation with confidence.

A side note: I once went through the airport security and unconsciously had this exchange with the TSA guy:

TSA guy: Have a nice trip!
Me: You too!

Anticipate the replies
Even when we converse in our own languages in a noisy environment or with a bad Internet connection, a lot of content could be missing but we can still carry on with the conversation. This is because we anticipate what people say and confirm our guess with the incomplete reply.

You will be guessing a lot when you converse in the language your are learning. You have to get used to dealing with uncertainty.

The trick is to anticipate what the other party is going to say. You may only understand a portion of the reply, but that could be enough to verify your guess. You may also need to rely on her tones, gestures, and facial expressions, too.

Narrow down the topics
Drive the conversation. Talk about subjects that are familiar to yourself. If you deploy this technique to someone you have just met, you should have no difficulty making the conversation last for a while.

For example, whenever I first meet a Mandarin speaker, I would ask where in China she comes from, and then move onto discussing the geography of China (where the main cities are located). Whenever I first meet a Francophone, I would talk about the importance of the French language in Canada. Whenever I meet with a Spanish speaker and I am asked how I learned my Spanish, and I would answer I watched too much “Dora the Explorer” with my daughter, and talk about my daughter.

You basically prepare mini-scripts and learn them, but you don’t have to do it deliberately. You gather them naturally in your head as you converse with more and more people.

Of course this won’t work well after the first encounter. You wouldn’t want to repeat the same lines to the same person again and again. Find someone you have never met and apply the scripts again.

Use word substitutions
If you don’t know the words, consider using the English equivalents. If you do it skillfully, it would sound natural or even somewhat ‘trendy’.

I often found substituting nouns, places, and names with their English equivalents more naturally than verbs, adjectives, and other constructs. Consider the following examples in Chinese. Saying “我来自Toronto” (I come from Toronto) is more natural than “我come from多伦多”.

You may also consider lengthening the conversation by asking how to say the word in the target language. Then you would have something to add to your vocabulary, too.

Be a good listener
At least pretend to be one. The trick is to keep silent but from time to time utter responses like “I see”, “I think so too”, or “really?”. These phrases should already be familiar to you if you have been doing a lot of input activities, and you should be able to say them naturally. Remember, you don’t need to understand what is said in order to response.

Repeat what is said
Pick a word or phrase you can figure out from what is being said and repeat it. For example,

A: In Toronto, most people can speak more than one language.
B: Most people?
A: Yes, most people. In fact, most of my friends can speak more than two.
B: More than two?

If you master this technique, not only would you sound like a good listener, but also a good interviewer.

Focus on making the conversation last
Keep the conversation going but don’t try to understand everything. Enjoy the fact that you are speaking the language with a native speaker. Quite often, the native speaker would enjoy the fact that some foreigner is speaking her language more than the content being discussed.

Some might think instead of deploying all these ‘workarounds’, why not wait until you are more ready.

The key to speaking is confidence. The goal at this stage is to build up your confidence speaking the language. Without confidence, even if you understand the conversation and know how to reply, you will find the other party switching back to your language pretty soon (if he has the option). He can sense your competence only after a few lines of exchange. So, be brave, start the conversation strong, and speak confidently.

Confidence has to come before you can speak fluently. If you wait for the time when you can speak the language fluently before speaking it, you will never get there.

The Challenge of Raising Multilingual Kids

Posted on | December 16, 2010 | 5 Comments

Many parents struggle with the challenge of raising their kids bilingually. I have the challenge of raising mine quadrilingually.

Cantonese has always been my daughter’s first language, and I as a parent will try my best to keep it up. English is the social language of our community, and naturally it will become more dominant as she grows up. She has also been learning Mandarin Chinese since she was three. French, one of the two official languages in Canada, is the fourth one which will be formally introduced to her very soon at school.

Let me defer talking about these four languages to my future posts, as I want to talk about a fifth language here. My daughter has been counting in Spanish non-stop since last week.

This actually surprises me a bit, as my daughter had not been exposed to Spanish a lot. We don’t have many Spanish-speaking relatives and friends. Like many other kids here in North America, she has been given excessive dosage of “Dora the Explorer“. But no matter how many hours she has been watching it, the “Dora language” never sticks in her mind. The only word she knew after all the “Dora immersion” was ‘Hola’.

Last week during a dinner, my daughter started to utter the Spanish numbers ‘uno, ‘dos’, and ‘tres’. I asked who taught her and she told me it was Mrs Chan from the school. I reminded her that Dora had a song in one episode counting from one to five, and in another she even taught us how to count up to twelve. Then she remembered. I reviewed the numbers with her, and she has been counting “los numeros” like crazy up to the time of this writing.


Same Principles, Different Implementations
I believe a lot of fundamental second language acquisition principles for adults can be applied to children as well. However, the ways to implement them could differ drastically. For example, we all know that in order to keep up the motivation, we need to have ‘fun’ in the learning process. We, as adults, might find it fun to watch and listen to materials in the target language and figure out the meanings behind. Children don’t necessarily enjoy the same activity, even if it is brought down to their own level.

I tried many times in vain playing my daughter’s favourite videos in another language track. I was sure she knew what was happening and what was about to happen in the stories, but each time with no exception, she immediately protested and ordered me to switch back to her familiar languages.

On the other hand, the counting activity is absolutely no fun for adults. But kids just love it!

Trigger Events
I also believe that children cannot be forced to like a language. There seems to be a time after some “trigger events”, they become hooked. All parents can do is to expose them to different languages and their speakers. Our goal is not to train them to speak the languages at this stage, but to let them know the existence of the languages, as well as their speakers and cultures. Once they become interested, they will automatically immerse themselves more to the languages.

Last few nights I had been watching a lot of YouTube clips with my daughter in Spanish. This time she watched them through with no complaint. I don’t know what Mrs Chan, a Chinese teacher, did to my daughter. Apparently, she did the right thing to arouse her interest in the Spanish language.

These “trigger events” are often unpredictable. For example, my daughter recently fell in love with one of the class teachers. I suggested her to learn to greet the teacher in her own language. My daughter tried very hard and spent a few days to learn the Korean greeting. One day she took up the courage and went up to the teacher and say to her “안녕하세요”. The teacher was very impressed.

Later, we found out that the teacher was actually not a Korean, but a Canadian-born Chinese with a Korean-look and a Korean-sounded last name.

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