by Kate Wiley
Source: Island Parent Magazine
Original Article: Click Here
Originally Published: April 2013
Stop speaking French, Mommy!” goes the fervent plea of my toddler at dinner time. Perhaps listening to my French is un petit painful at present, but how does one learn if not by practicing? And what better place than at home?
This is precisely the problem, I fear. We rarely practice at home, as neither my husband nor I are Francophone. And, in light of this shortfall, we have enrolled our toddler in a partial French immersion preschool. The transition has not been as smooth as I had imagined.
As a Spanish speaker and project manager for a translation company, I feel it is important that my children have a second, third, even fourth language. Since French is the plat du jour in Canada, it seems a logical place to start.
French should be an easy leap from Spanish, but as any mother of a toddler and nine-month-old will attest, finding the time to focus on language learning—or any form of self-improvement, for that matter—is a challenge. And so I leave it to Madame Carole Trudeau at Appletree Preschool.
My son is one of her newest pupils, and while I fully expect he will adjust in due time, the first month has been a struggle. There are fewer rounds of “I don’t want to go to school!” these days, but the tears that accompany my departure from the grounds persist.
Our eldest has always been extraordi- narily verbal, picking up new English words lightning fast. And he generally takes to new people and surroundings readily, which is why I suspect the French-dominant atmo- sphere at his preschool may be throwing him for a loop.
Resources abound that tout the benefits of parents speaking a second language to a child from birth, but the evidence that sug- gests a preschooler can be dropped into an immersion environment for two mornings a week and hope to make headway, is less forthcoming.
Certainly, immersion is the most beneficial method of foreign language learning at any age, but perhaps it is overly ambitious to expect an almost-three-year-old child to ex- press enthusiasm for mastering yet another labyrinth of sounds, when his initial foray into English is still so fresh.
Trudeau says second language learning requires being attentive, something children struggle with in today’s society. “Écoute avec tes oreilles,” trills Trudeau. “How many times do I say that sentence in the week? Listen with your ears.” She says playing with the new sounds is crucial. She employs lots of action singing in her classroom, songs where her preschoolers can move their bodies in conjunction with the words.
Karen Goreas, a French Immersion kin- dergarten teacher at École John Stubbs, says pre-kindergarten exposure to French gives some students a leg up but is not crucial to their success. “Immersion teachers know that most parents have limited French and do lots to help [them] help their children at home,” she says. “Students love to be the teacher—parents are always telling me how their children correct their pronunciation.”
For children who have little or no basic vocabulary in French, teaching literacy and numeracy skills in the second language can be challenging, admits Goreas. “Immersion teachers need to have a great bag of tricks (songs, gestures, props, visual aids) to communicate what would be easily understood in the native language.”
Despite these hurdles, the brain’s language centre remains highly active and adaptive in early learners, says Goreas. Equally beneficial, she adds, is their lack of self- consciousness, something that often inhibits older learners from practicing out loud, a necessary step to learning a new language.
Goreas generally gives a child six months to adapt before assessing whether the immersion program might not be the right choice for that student. For some, waiting until Grade 6 can make a world of differ- ence. “[Late immersion students] are of the age where they can consciously choose to begin French immersion,” says Duncan McIndoe, Coordinator for Languages in the Sooke School District. “This decision is often a very purposeful one.”
In order for late immersion students to be successful in the two-year program, “they must truly push themselves both inside and outside of the classroom,” says McIndoe. Once they join the early immer- sion students in Grade 8, the margin of difference between the two is often slim, he says. “Late Immersion students typically have less developed oral skills, however this improves with time.”
Whether it’s of any advantage to him or not, I will continue to drive my son clear across town in an effort to expose him to some French before enrolling him in the newly-minted immersion program at the elementary school up the road. And I will continue to offer a verbal pastiche during mealtime.
Madame Carole’s gentle remonstration goads me onward: “No one should struggle to learn or teach a language: Be creative. It cannot be imposed after all. A language is alive, it involves the senses. Capture the teachable moment and enjoy it!” At the very least, I’m sure I can convince my son to counter my French foibles with “Arrêt, Maman!”
Kate Wiley is mother to two mostly charming and sometimes irksome little boys. Her family is looking forward to a year abroad in 2015, during which learning French will no longer be optional.
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