Foreign language is pretty important to our family, because we love to travel and learn about other cultures. So I am always thinking of new ways to help my children (and myself) learn and retain languages better. One of the most visited pages on this blog is my ten tips on teaching children a foreign language.
Our most important focus language right now is Italian. Tony and I are fairly conversant. We keep it up by listening to Italian pop music all day long. The children have had quite a bit of exposure too. They are a little shy about speaking, but their passive vocabulary is pretty good. But somehow, this term I had a really hard time coming up with a good daily foreign language program for them.
The library CD’s (it was called something like “Drive Time Italian”) didn’t really work out for us. They were deadeningly boring. Livemocha is fun, but it’s too much of an artificial drilling experience. They learned the words, but it didn’t really help them to use those words in speech. And a lot of the books from the International Children’s Digital Library are just too advanced for them.
My mother-in-law has quite a nice collection of language-learning CD’s, including tons of Spanish, and a smattering of Russian, French, and yes, Italian. The French and Italian programs are both by Michel Thomas. Have you heard of him? He was a language teacher whose Beverly Hills Polyglot Institute taught the rich and famous how to speak French. I’m not kidding. The back of the CD hails him as the French teacher of celebrities like Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Emma Thompson, Warren Beatty, and Princess Grace of Monaco. (All of them well-known, of course, for their superior facility with the French language.)
Thomas’ system is actually pretty good, I think. His major coup is making it seem effortless to speak in a new language. Considering the fact that a belief that languages are “hard” is one of the main factors that contribute to failure, he’s got a great point. His method is pretty fun too. Tony has been listening to the French CD’s and whispering to me seductively in French lately. So I thought I might try out the Italian ones on Axa.
Well, it was another example of how my great educational ideas sometimes fizzle when I try to apply them to my children. Problem #1: when Michel Thomas explains things in English, he has such a thick German (or is it Polish) accent that Axa can’t understand him. Problem #2: All the Italian pronunciation is done by a student. A student with a pretty atrocious accent. So when Axa said she didn’t like it, I was secretly relieved to put it away and not have to worry about her own nice accent deteriorating in imitation.
Then I was back to square one. I still needed a way to teach her Italian. I started racking my brain again. And then it hit me. When I was studying Arabic in college, my professor showed us a delightful Egyptian film called Al-aragoz (The Puppeteer). We watched in tiny segments of a couple of minutes each. During each viewing, my professor would play difficult parts over and over, until we could understand the Arabic dialogue. Although we watched that film for at least a year, we never did end up finishing it in class. I watched the ending years later.
I know more than one person who has learned English largely from watching Hollywood films and American television, so I thought it was worth a try. I decided on a movie that I wouldn’t mind watching over and over, but which Axa would also enjoy (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast).
Now we watch a little bit of it in Italian on Youtube every morning. In 10-15 minutes, we make it through maybe a minute or two of the movie. I play perhaps 15 seconds of it and then ask Axa what the character said. She can often repeat it back, or at least pick out a few words. Then we move on to the next little bit.
It might sound tedious, but that’s why you have to pick a really great movie. About once a week, we go back and watch from the beginning. After several weeks of this, we have watched twenty minutes or so of Beauty and the Beast. Axa has remembered and learned quite a bit of Italian. And she’s enjoying it. In fact, she says Italian is her favorite subject after handwriting. Go figure.