Sunday, August 15, 2010

Returning to Thailand

My 11 year old daughter and I are vacationing in Thailand this month partly due to her desire to speak Thai - her father's language. Andara was born in the U.S. where I spoke English and her father spoke Thai with her. Although she went to the Thai temple and visited Thai friends, she could understand Thai but never really spoke it. With this in mind, we travelled to stay with my in-laws and her father's family, living in an environment surrounded completely in Thai. The Thai family does not speak English, in fact, they speak both the Thai language and a northern Thai dialect to make things really interesting. The first week here was typical for a new speaker; I could tell Andara was listening to everything said to her, trying to make sense of it all, but it wasn't until the second week that she attempted small words and answers to direct questions - emerging slowly out of that silent phase after only one week. Her family has been very helpful not only asking questions slowly and repetitively but also answering the questions for her, modeling how to speak Thai. Today she even answered the telephone! It's been quite extraordinary watching her come to terms with a language she has been very familiar with but never really understood - until now.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Visiting Bilingual Quebec

Recently I returned from a short vacation to Quebec with my daughter, her father and his 2 cooks (he owns a Thai restaurant). Quebec, as we all know, prides itself on speaking French as its home language and English as its second language. I was very excited to visit and get a chance to practice my high school French. How'd it go? Hmmm. Well, in Quebec, all conversations begin in French and when they hear you reply in French they continue rather rapidly in French - I of course looked like a stunned deer in the headlights and would quickly interrupt - with some English. The astonishing part to me was how the speaker would then continue in English effortlessly - and quite fast, I might add. The transition from one language to the other was remarkable. In addition, difficulty understanding the spoken English due to first language interference was minimal. In other words, the accent didn't matter all that much. Native Quebec speakers truly appeared to me to be bilingual; how they maintain that level of dual language proficiency is remarkable. When you drive through the city, Quebec does not seem to be bilingual - street signs are only in French, and, as mentioned before, people initiate and maintain conversations primarily in French. Where does that bilingual foundation develop? Without knowing too much about Quebec, I'd guess home and school. The home language for most people appeared to be French, but English must be a dominant language in the school for there to be such fluidity. There also must be a very strong emotional connection to French, a reason for maintaining the language despite the proximity and dominance of English in surrounding provinces and countries. Learning about the history of Quebec City, I realized that the wars between the French and the English way back when may have never been forgotten or forgiven, which is just the impetus needed for French to remain the dominant language; without the emotional attachment and support not only from the government but also from the citizens, French could never maintain its dominance.

Lessons to be learned? Maintaining an emotional tie - and pride - to the home language is a must in order for children to keep motivated and expand their home language. In addition, children must be exposed to the language in all skill areas: listening, reading, writing and speaking. Attending church, listening to music, watching television and YouTube videos, and sharing stories from home are all valid resources to be exploited while maintaining a home language.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Romance Novels and Second Language Learning

This past spring several new students arrived from Haiti with proficiency in French as well as limited knowledge of English. My limited French was barely passable even though I'd studied French from 3rd grade to 12th. Not ever having practiced using French in any situation - reading, writing and conversational - my skills deteriorated from lack of use. In order to jumpstart what I knew I had stored in my brain, I asked friends for any type of French literature and was given a romance Harlequinn novel, originally written in English but translated to French, to read. What I immediately noticed was that certain words and phrases repeated themselves throughout the story, for example I quickly relearned sourire which means smile and souhait which means a wish. Then there is soupcon which means suspicion. You can see the pattern. With the constant exposure to the same words, I was able to more quickly learn forgotten or new vocabulary words. Not only was repetitive vocabulary helpful but so were the cognates - words that are similar in sound and spelling in both languages. For example: interrogea meaning to interrogate - as in a cheating partner or verifier, to verify - again, as in a cheating partner. The problem with reading of course is the lack of 2 way dialogue needed to practice conversations in order to build fluency in French. One way to practice conversational French is to convince a friend who is not only suspicious of their cheating partner but also fluent in French and willing to discuss their experiences using the Romance Novel vocabulary. One example from that diaglogue might be: Je voudrai interrogea es verifier avec un sourire avec un ami....or maybe not. Then after having mastered romantic situations in French, I'll be able to apply my new language skills to other conversations and situations.
In terms of ESL, or learning any new language, repetitive vocabulary is necessary and using cognates (sometimes in the home language) can also be helpful (of course try to avoid false cognates which sound similar but have completely different meanings). Finding appropriate, and interesting, materials is also key; sometimes these materials might not be what we are used to. Although The Boston Globe may be more responsible Harlequinn might be more back to Tel Qu'en mon Souvenir!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Small People

The following excerpt is taken from The Huffington Post, June 17, 2010

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg gave a press conference after BP's four hour meeting with Obama at the White House. During his statement, he disputed the claim the the oil giant didn't care about gulf residents, stating that BP cares about "small people." English is a second language for Svanberg, who is Swedish, but reporters took note of his demeaning phrasing, and shouted questions about what he meant after he spoke, which he did not answer.
The exact quote was:
"we care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies or greedy companies that don't care, but that is not the case at BP. We care about the small people."

Classic ESL error in pragmatics. Yes, we can certainly describe people as small in stature but using the word small as an adjective when not talking about stature assumes one is greater than the other – a George Orwell “Animal Farm” if you will. There is one idea everyone agrees upon as one of the major tenents of the U.S.A. democratic system and that is that everyone is created equal. As an ESL learner, Svanberg might have considered running his statement past a native language speaker – anyone would do – who would have understood the significance of “small people”. Grammatically correct, small as the adjective in front of the noun people, but so very wrong when discussing a large multi-national corporation caring for “the common folk”. Svanberg should have paid a little more attention to President Obama’s speeches: “the common folk”, or even “Joe the plumber” would have been a better choice of words.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Raising a bilingual child

Spreading the word about the benfits of bilingualism is a true passion of mine , even though I grew up speaking only English. My paternal grandparents were from Parma, Italy but it wasn't until I was a student at Boston University that I learned my first phrases in Italian. That was over 20 years ago, and not a day goes by that I don't use my second language-Italian. I think my grandparents would have been proud of me. Unfortunately, when they were raising their children in Boston (including my dad) they were ashamed of their broken English and perhaps believed that using two languages with their children was confusing. However, this is simply not the case. Years of research have proven that knowing more than one language provides myriad cognitive benefits- not to mention it is lots of fun!
Raising a child who is conversant in another language can be accomplished through the use of oral language. However, raising a child who is literate in two languages can be more challlenging. One of the challenges is identifying authentic, engaging literature. Natasha's awesome book- Kolobok- is a perfect example of literature that promotes multingualism on a variety of levels.
I am so thrilled to be a part of Natasha Bochkov's dynamic team of educators. For over twenty years I have taught English as a second language ( ESL) to adults, children, and adolescents in the United States. I have also taught English as a foreign language in Luxembourg and Greece. I am very happy to share my thoughts on second language acquistion and culturally responsive teaching with readers across the globe.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Russian Folk Storytelling

One of the biggest advantages of being born into a family of teachers is getting lessons around the clock. It is no surprise that at the age of four I was capable of reading books to my friends in the childcare. Naturally, my teachers liked it, and I owe them a big thanks for encouraging me because this is probably when my love for fairytales began. When I was a little girl, I used to enjoy reading fairytales, retelling them to my friends and family, putting my own spin on the classic stories. I think everyone can relate to that wonderful, creative child imagination.

Today I think back to those times when I read stories to my child, surely changing some passages every now and then. Some of the words are so outdated that I would have to search for their meanings in that huge dictionary we Russians love to keep around, not to mention the trouble of translating them into another language.

The fun of storytelling is enormous. My favorite moments are when I make such a twist in a story that my child picks it up and plays along, and, better yet, he remembers it and repeats it the next day. That is what I call successful storytelling and priceless family time.

It is an exponential progression from listening and reading fairytales to an infinite love and appreciation of the art, to doing your own storytelling.