The Story Behind Our First Project

I was thrust into the world of helping children acquire a second language about a year after my husband and I moved overseas. Starting when we arrived and for the whole first year, we acquired our own second language through daily classes available within our community. Several other families with children were also taking these classes. Like us, the parents in these families received the benefit of being submerged in a language-learning environment with an understanding native speaker. It was an ideal safe zone for committing cultural faux pas and asking questions.

As great as these classes were, the difficulty of managing family life, language classes, and culture shock left most of these parents exhausted day after day. Meanwhile, during classes, their children had to be looked after by a nanny or a spouse. The parents did not have a mechanism by which their kids could learn language and culture. The few opportunities these kids had to participate in the new language were frequently confusing and uncomfortable. The children had no idea what to do or how to interact with the locals. When a child needed the parent while the parent was in class or speaking the foreign language, the child was often put on hold, and told to be quiet and wait. This created hostility in the child towards the local language, because the main emotions felt were anxiety (from confusing cultural expectations and an inability to understand people) and abandonment. These negative associations created a barrier against the new world they lived in.

I wondered what could be done for these children. If they did not have a safe place to learn culture and ask questions, or get a chance to start learning language in a fun, expectation-free environment, how would they ever feel at home in their new culture? Armed with my own recent language acquisition experience and fueled by the desire to invite these children into the world I was welcomed into so warmly, I began to seek answers. Christine Lewis, mother of three children under age 6, was also looking for a language learning solution for her own family and enthusiastically led the charge into the unknown.

Together we organized a class for English speaking kids in our community. We got parents on board to bring their little ones for short half hour sessions where the goal was not repeating words in the new language, but becoming comfortable playing, hearing, and interacting in another language. We had a second class for kids ages five and up, and started experimenting with them to see what kinds of activities inspired them to embrace the new language and culture. We had a friendly, soft-spoken and non-intimidating local girl be their language “mother”, and together we started experimenting with different methods to introduce vocabulary and phrases to these kids. Christine’s mother-in-law, Rebecca Lewis, who has 20 years of curriculum development experience, encouraged us to not just fix the problem for ourselves, but solve it for others too. Together we created this list of principles to be the basis of all of our classes and lessons, so our program can be used in any language context.

• A child should learn his second language similar to how he learned his first language. He first learned to speak from hours of interaction with a nurturing mother. To make this element part of our curriculum, we want to avoid strict correction or shaming and instead use lots of repetition and positive reinforcement.

• When tested, put on the spot or singled out, children become anxious. This shuts down their ability to learn. Instead, we want them to feel at ease and therefore do not use any single child turn-taking during activities.

• How we present the language needs to appeal to all five senses and be offered in more than one learning style so every child can have a strong learning experience. We offer repetition of the same content in multiple ways to reach each type of learner.

• Our language lessons need to be reproducible and use local resources. They must be able to teach any language to speakers of any other language. They need to flexible enough to be used in any cultural setting and with mixed age groups. From these principles, and many hours of children’s classes filled with laughter and “aha!” moments, this 20-lesson curriculum came together. We dedicate this curriculum to the man who once said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

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