Thoughts on Foreign Language

I was going to tell you the story of how and why we began to seriously consider the issue of FOREIGN LANGUAGE for our children after the how and why we seriously didn't think much about languages. Then I was going to tell you about all the things we tried and how they worked out or if they didn't work at all. After that, you would be ready for what we're doing now and that would smoothly lead you into the notions we have for the future. However, by that time, Susan and Howard would be frantically having to search how to squeeze the rest of their amazing newsletter into roughly two and a half columns and test to see if staples would really go through that many pages.

So, let me cut to the quick: Languages didn't work when it was MY idea and "Greek" to our children when they were young. I "took" (mind you, not "learned") the mandatory four years of French in school and am quite pleased that I can communicate with lots and lots of gestures, many nouns and get away with keeping my life and thoughts in the present tense. Where does that leave me when guiding my children??? A bit on shaky ground. I'm no expert, not too confident, not to sure just how important it really is in this day of international English, and still wondering how we manage to keep on squeezing more into our already overstuffed schedule.

Two years ago, Brian and Katie (then 12 and 10) decided they wanted to begin a language. Well, I took that as a sign to start a foreign language and French it was--after all I did have a head start and I knew we wouldn't need to go beyond the present tense right away!

We all did very well and were pleased with the Learnables and Basic Structures. Even Neil and Kevin (now eight and six) took an interest and would speak food-and-greeting-French with us. French in Action, the BBC video/text/workbook series (can be rented through PA Homeschoolers) seemed like a wonderful place to go. BUT we weren't really ready for that level and wanted something different for our second year. Then Susan loaned me her set of Power Glide French after I'd inquired if she had experience with the program yet, since it was relatively new. That's when I got into this article in the first place. I could borrow the tapes, IF I'D WRITE A REVIEW about them. And, here we are in the present tense about to review the program.

I'd heard that it was a very interesting approach, utilized the drama of a spy story and might be more suited to boys, who perhaps are more intrigued with that sort of format. So, I was prepared. I thought.

What I found, though, was a very invigorating, interesting, and successfully challenging program. There is a great deal of variety to Power Glide. My daughter loves it (who, by the way, is a girl) and I love it (also female). I'll get back to the rest of our family in a minute, because I'm sure you're wondering "how different can it really be" from all of the other programs? There is the background spy story (very non-intrusive and sedate), where clues and puzzle pieces must be collected throughout the lessons in order to figure out why a tiny island in the western Caribbean Sea has been seized by invaders from outer space. There is work in problem solving, working out the meaning of text material with the aid of pictures and other cues that encourages independent learning. Variations in lesson presentation include: introduction of vocabulary and usage, sentences with words run together that need separating, picking out mistakes, lines/dots/numbers that aid with plurals and masculine / feminine endings, conversations, word symbols that encourage spontaneous sentence forming, diglots (where French words are gradually inserted into English stories until the story eventually becomes French), and specific phonetic symbols to help in pronunciation. The lessons vary day to day (in a similar manner as Miquon Math), the tapes are recorded by native speakers and are meant to be stopped and started often, the workbook is interesting, culture is explored while on the chase, and most pleasantly--students are expected to use the lessons to actually THINK-- turning thought to speech, producing spontaneous and purposeful talk with personally felt meaning. They are urged to avoid self-doubt, mid-sentence hesitation, memorization, and over-concern with mechanics. I really love the way that a concept is presented, used in various examples and then left for the student to take the next leap and apply key information in different ways. You can actually watch the light bulb flash brightly above your child's head! She gets it! And she's had a sense of self-discovery.

By the first thirty pages, your children will have a decent beginning vocabulary, know about masculine/feminine and adjective agreement to nouns, as well as pronoun and verb agreement. They will be able to use any counting number conceivable, become familiar with sentence structure and be able to ask questions. Most importantly, they will be able to say "The king is singing, the one who likes to play funeral chants on the drum." What more could you ask for???? And by page thirty yet! (Power Glide does not promise a short-cut business world language capability, but does help students to internalize the core of a language and build the foundational experiences, attitudes, habits, skills and learning strategies that make rapid, efficient progress possible. The program aims to inspire vision, fire motivation, foster dedication, promote learning strategies and produce toughness and perseverance. (Just right for us daring homeschooling families, right?)

Power Glide is suitable for bright ten year olds and above. I would hesitate to have younger children or even children a bit older jump in without some previous introduction to the language. By that, I mean familiarity with a beginner program or some experience with simple conversation. I think the intellectual skills require conceptual ability of at least a ten year old (not to say that your child isn't ready). It is designed to take students through a college second year level. At some point, I think that combining the program with French in Action would greatly facilitate fluency.

But I don't feel a language program should stand alone. The more conversation that can actually be used at home, the more familiar the language becomes. I suggest you find children's magazines printed in the target language, meet someone who is a native speaker and arrange visits, go to a language day camp or overnight camp. Katie and Neil attended a two week overnight French camp sponsored by Alliance Francais de Philadelphie and had a wonderfully enriching and enthusiastic experience. The director was so pleased with the six children who were homeschooled (from three families) that she intends to have a French session next summer for ONLY homeschooled children--because of their enthusiastic hunger to learn. (Please let her know if you might be interested and do plan to attend their open house in the spring. Details about the camp will be given at the end of this article.) Watch foreign films, eat the food, watch the gestures. Have FUN!

Now, about my other children. Brian, at almost fifteen, is a political-economics-current events enthusiast. After coming along this far in French, he now decides he wants to learn Chinese, "the language of future." Well, um, I have absolutely NO abilities in Chinese and don't especially have the interest or time to fit that into my "teaching." After asking our Chinese friends though, we did find that there was a all-morning Chinese Saturday School, held at a nearby high school. Courses go from kindergarten through adulthood, and include beginning conversation classes. I told Brian that my contribution to his learning Chinese would be paying the fee and driving. After that, it was his responsibility. This has been a wonderful learning experience (though humbling, since he couldn't cut it in the kindergarten class, but might be able to after two years in the beginning conversation class!). The dozen or so classes there include cultural and craft opportunities also. If you want to know how he's doing . . . it didn't work out, only because his Boy Scout and Explorer Post trips were coming up about every other week and he couldn't manage that many absenses. But he truly did enjoy the class, the teacher and having the combination of adults and teens in attendance.

We have found many other foreign language opportunities in our community in the Philadelphia suburbs and if you dig in just a bit, I'm sure you'll find surprising opportunities in your neighborhood as well. There are some wonderful catalogs of foreign language materials and even your school district or library might be willing to loan you materials. We are lucky enough to have the Alliance Francaise (and its overnight summer camp) and the French International School of Philadelphia (and its summer day camp) within five minutes from home. Often collages offer opportunities.

Neil and Kevin are enthusiastic learners of beginning French and have the advantage of beginning early in the natural setting of their older siblings' learning and speaking. They like videos, audio tapes, story and sticker books, and especially French visitors. They seem to have no trouble picking up a very nice accent and are not hindered by the junior high school embarrassment that I so enjoyed! Actually my French teacher was an Italian southerner . . . you can imagine the accent!

After all this, you may still be asking yourself, but WHY do my children need a new language when English is the international language? I think that learning a new language helps us appreciate and understand our own language better, understand cultural differences, process and think in a broader manner, travel with more ease and knowledge, read original literature, and converse with others who have the potential of opening up new worlds of experiences to explore.




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