Sunday, April 26, 2015

5 Classroom Lessons Learned from Speaking French with a Toddler

I am a non-native French speaker, and although my husband loves other cultures as much as I do, we chose not to do the one-parent-one language approach at home with our child. The two basic reasons are that my husband speaks limited French, and thus would be left out of most of our conversations, and it's not my native language, so I have no idea how to "baby talk" or sing or generally interact with infants in French.

Instead, we opted to make French "fun" at home.  I rarely watch TV with my almost-three-year old son, but when we do, it's "Caillou" en français.  I know my son would tell you that I am definitely more fun in French.  Thanks to all of my years of maintaining the target language in class, I am an adept mime with a flare for the dramatic.  We speak French in the car, we have French books that I read, and I often speak French as part of our daily routine.  And when I do any technology with him, such as iPads, it's always in French.

As a person who embraces and has studied language, watching my little boy develop language skills has been fascinating, and I have been AMAZED at how quickly he is picking up any French that I use with him. Studies show that kids and adults can learn additional languages equally well, but that their process for language acquisition is different.  My son (and many toddlers) is a true sponge when it comes to the sounds of new words.  He will use French phrases with me that I haven't used with him in months.

Here are 5 things I have learned from speaking French with a toddler (and how they will impact my future teaching):

1.  Patterns come naturally.  My little francophone is making connections without having them explicitly explained.  He somehow knows when to use the indefinite/definite article or that the color white sounds differently when paired with a snow plow (une déneigeuse blanche.  This may give you a sense of what vocabulary we use at home!)  He knows that we use "de" to describe relations but "au" in different cases.  When teaching, I will focus more on using meaningful language in context to help students make connections on their own.  

2.  Certain language structures are used more frequently than others.  Until speaking French with my son, I had no idea that certain structures would be more useful than others.  We regularly use "de" to describe relationships between objects.  (un bonhomme de neige, un camion d'incendie, etc.)  When teaching, I must focus on using language structures that are relevant to the students in front of me.  

3.  Repeated phrases and expression are not what I expected.  The phrases I use the most at home are:

  • Wait for me
  • Don't move
  • Don't touch that
  • What are you doing?
  • What happened?
  • Listen!
  • Stop!
  • He said/She said (for storytelling purposes)
  • Oh no!  That's crazy!
  • I want______.
  • Where are you?
  • Look at______.
  • What is it?
I would never have imagined these to be the words most used at home (or maybe I just have an exceptionally "energetic" toddler).  When teaching, I need to teach the vocabulary that is most relevant to the students in front of me. The more relevant it is, the more it will be used and the better speakers students will become.

4.  Language learning is not a set "list" of vocabulary and structures.  The French words and structures we use do not always unite to a theme or list and they aren't cohesive.  When I read books in French, my son doesn't always understand every word or structure and the books don't always tie to the same topic, but he still learns much from everything we do.  Language learning is not linear; it is a complicated process that is messy.  Students need the opportunity to use and learn language in a variety of forms.

5.  Language learners are more capable at creativity and connections than I had realized.  My son surprises and delights me daily with this ability to create with French.  I need to remember that learners need the freedom to explore and to create in order learn.  

My greatest hope is that I can help my son and my students to become citizens of the world.  What lessons and experiences about language learning do you have to share?

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