Teaching Languages

by Noel Leithart

Why do we teach our children any of the things we do? Isn't it all merely an exercise to teach them to think for themselves, and, even more, a tool so that they can better understand God's world and take dominion? There is much that a child learns in school that he never directly takes into everyday life. My husband plays the piano, and does it quite well, but he is studying to be a theologian, not a concert pianist. Does that mean he should never have learned to play? I took Calculus, and as far as I know, I'm not using it today except to teach my own children, but according to John Saxon, who wrote the highly successful maths series, one should study as much formal mathematics as possible as an exercise of the brain. I know of more than one brilliant theological scholar who studied maths at the undergraduate level, and because of it he feels it has given him a greater understanding of God's Word. Even if it is merely a "mind exercise", some feel that is reason enough to learn many different disciplines. After all, God is Lord over all!

And what is our charge from the Lord Jesus Christ? To go to the far corners of the earth, telling everyone about the work of Christ, making disciples of all nations. Do all nations speak the same language? Remember Babel? We don't expect everyone to learn English, do we? Let us prepare our children to take the Gospel of Christ to all the corners of the earth.

So there are good reasons for Christian students to learn foreign languages. But how do you go about it? Two main questions need to be answered as you get started. First, parents need to decide which language to teach. Then, they need to decide how to teach the language. I will share some of my own thoughts and experiences as a student and as a parent, and hope that they will be helpful to others.

Which Language?

Parents who never learned a foreign language often do not know where to begin in choosing which to teach their children. A first step is to stretch our thinking about teaching and learning foreign language. There are so many more ways to teach than we realize. Be broad and realize what a foreign language is. Music is a foreign language. Enrol your child in lessons to play an instrument where he has to learn to read the music. Let him learn music theory, the history of music. When your child has learned to play an instrument really well, he has mastered a foreign language. Often musicians cannot speak the same language for communication purposes, but the great composers have written music that can be played together by people who don't have the same spoken tongue. They all have a common language in the scores of notes. Even sign language for the hearing impaired is a foreign language. There are many ways to communicate, and we should learn more than just our own native tongue in order to be more responsive to the needs of others in the world, whether they be the godly or the ungodly.

What other criteria might we use to decide on a language to teach? Some parents prefer to teach the Hebrew and Greek of God's Word. This enables students to go to the original texts and study them as closely as possible. What a powerful tool! We could teach our children these languages, for who knows which of our children will go on to become Godly, biblical scholars? For others, Latin is the language they feel their children should learn. Although no longer spoken, many of the present languages of today have their roots in Latin. Science uses Latin terms so that scientists all over the world can communicate. Much of church history is recorded in Latin, and some of the great Latin orators of the Roman Empire have given speeches that when studied help us all to learn beautiful sentence structures. It may have been a pagan nation, but we can use their abilities and knowledge of a language to teach us ways to glorify the one and only God.

I chose to teach my children French. For a long time, I've wanted to teach my children a foreign language. I learned French from age 6 to 16. I went to a school that provided weekly lessons in a merely conversational mode. When I was 10, the teacher began giving us the rudiments of written work, mostly grammar and basic sentences. This was the first chance we had to see the words that we had been "saying" for so long. How different it was! The spelling was so strange. If I had to try to pronounce these words without having heard them first, my pronunciation would have been laughable. Gradually I learned the rules of pronunciation and what they meant. By the time I was 13, I began taking French on an official level, one that would contribute to my high school diploma. So in all, I had three years of "real" French. We learned all the grammar, vocabulary, social studies, and history one could possibly cram in to those three years. For those years that "counted" I had a native teacher who actually came from Paris. She was a wonderful lady and very thorough. The only negative outcome was that I would never speak it unless I absolutely had to. Yet when I had the opportunity to go to France, I could understand the spoken word very well, and whatever I read I could understand also. But I would always respond in English. So now as an adult I wanted my children to also learn a foreign language. Maybe with encouragement, they would actually learn to |speak| the language and do it well.

One of my children told me he would rather learn Spanish. Now whether this was just another example of his delight in challenging our decisions, or whether he truly did want to learn Spanish, will only be discovered after he learns French. I told him that French was the first language he would learn for two reasons: (1) I had many years of it and could help with the basics of pronunciation, and (2) once he'd learned his first language, the second will be easier. He can learn the next language on his own.

Which Curriculum?

Having settled on teaching French, I had to decide how to teach it. I wanted the children to learn the grammar, and so I was looking for more traditional courses. At the same time, I had been told that children should start learning languages at a young age. I knew that my younger children could not handle French grammar, so I also had to find something to get them started.

I began to look for as many French homeschooling materials as I could find, looking first at what was available from Christian publishers. I discovered that Spanish courses abounded, German was available here and there, but French was very limited. A Beka provides two years of upper level French. That was great and I bought it! But until the children were ready for high school level, what could I do?

So, I was back to the drawing board. I found a secular program called "The Learnables." They had a toll-free number, so I called and asked them loads of questions. They attempt to teach foreign languages in the same way a child learns his first language. A baby learns his language by seeing objects and listening to the same spoken words over and over, so this is how someone could learn another language, no matter what the level or age. Just think about it. How do you talk to the baby in your house? "Chair. Chair. Can you say `chair'? See, this is a chair." We get picture books, or simple story books, and read, read, read to him. The baby hears us talk to one another and learns to imitate. And how long does it take him to learn that? Some learn it faster than others. Actually some can understand it long before they can articulate it. And they often get the pronouns, subject-verb agreement, tenses, cases, etc. all mixed up. But the grammar can come later. At first they are just learning to hear the language and to tune their ears to it.

"The Learnables" follows that method in teaching a foreign language. You can purchase the "Learnables" in a number of different languages. The course comes as a set of tapes, which contain no English. The course also includes comic-like picture books, which have no words in them at all. The student listens to the tapes and looks at the picture books. The tapes and pictures begin with identifying objects. Then, they put the various objects together in a single picture and begin using verbs and prepositions. So, when the student looks at the picture of the man eating, the French tape will say "Il mange"; when he looks at the apple on the table, the tape says "La pomme est sur la table." Gradually, the student learns to associate audible words and sentences with the pictures. Each section ends with a test that gives a series of ten sentences; the book shows three pictures for each sentence, and the student must choose the picture that matches the sentence.

Also, I found picture books in French at public libraries, and even found that I could purchase the same at Heffers in Cambridge. The Early Learning Center has French picture flash cards, games, and cassettes with songs. Around the house, we sing and talk about these new words. We try to count and recite the days of the week and months of the year much in the same way you would when teaching your child these things in English. It's important, though, to have cassettes, so that the children can hear the language from people who speak it as their native tongue. Those of us not born in the particular country don't always get it right. And children will pick up the subtleties.

So after you've "conquered" the basics, sometimes you need to see the bigger picture. Are you preparing your child for University? If so, then you need to find a course that will cover some of those materials at the proper level before he actually enrols in this higher education. A Beka has one as does Bob Jones University. Most publishers for Christian dayschool materials will have something for Spanish and maybe German.

Where I went to University in the United States you could get two kinds of degrees - BA or BS. To receive the BA - Bachelor of Arts - you had to learn a foreign language, but that was not the case for the BS - Bachelor of Science. Depending on what one wanted to go into later also made the decision as to whether you wanted the BA or BS. My husband, Peter, "rues the day" that he didn't take more language (what he took was rather cursory, yet he did receive the BA). But then again, he's doing Ph.D. work and needs the language now.

But back to the present-day situation. When the older children became bored with the little learning games, I was at a loss for a program for them. Before I left America, I had purchased the A Beka French program (I think it's geared to age 13 and up). I hadn't started using it yet, feeling that everyone just wasn't quite ready. Yet after looking over the whole thing it was nice to see that they used Bible memory verses in French, etc. And yet, I left it in America for the three years we are to be in Cambridge, thinking that I wouldn't be using it until we returned. I really wish I had it now. But it will be a nice refresher, review course for when we return.

So not yet knowing about Heffers upper education dept, I walked into W.H. Smith and purchased the BBC French program. I didn't want a course in holiday/conversational French, and the clerk assured me this was the number 1 course. (Yes, I fell for it.) One of the major problems I have with the BBC course is that it teaches so much of the "acceptable" lifestyle, like the vocabulary word for "live-in lover," and as I sat down with the older ones, aged 11 and 13, to do this program with them, I found a lot of gaps. They were not learning any grammar, or at least it was being presented in a haphazard manner. Again I was tossed about mentally, trying to decide whether we learn to speak in sentences first and then learn the why's and how's. Probably so. So we persevered. But I still felt I had to find a grammar program. This time I went to Heffers in Trinity Street, Cambridge, and WOW! I found shelves and shelves of French grammar along with every language you could think of, and a lot you'd never heard of.

So the saga continues of the homeschooling mom who continues to learn alongside her children...

Peter and Noel Leithart currently live in Cambridge, England. They home-school their eight children.

Copyright © Family Matters 1997