Making new friends at the Ultimate Blog Party 2013

Bonjour, Guten Tag, Hola, Ni Hao, Ciao, Salam…..

If you are new to the Living Language blog, let me share with you what it’s all about!

On my blog you can learn about world cultures and languages and how to help kids explore them. As parents, we look at many daily experiences as learning opportunities–I tap into these same experiences with a language-learning twist!

Lots of research shows how readily kids pick up new languages at a young age, but most elementary schools do not yet provide regular language instruction. But there are lots of ways to make world language part of your daily life, even if you are not a fluent world language speaker yourself. So join me on my journey to make world language fun for families, with tips, resources and activities for Living Language and enjoying culture in everyday life!

So how did I end up on this path? Almost by accident!  I intended to become a French professor and bounced around academia for a while before volunteering to run a French club at my son’s elementary school. You can read more of my story here, but the short version is that I began expanding my own horizons, learning about other languages and cultures so I could share it with the kids. As I learn new things, I share them in my blog so families like yours can have fun exploring the world too!

Thanks for visiting, and stop back again soon!  I’d love to hear about YOUR language and culture experiences as well!

Making Moves: learning a language through active games

Energy of the young kids

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has spent a busy afternoon with a group of kids and felt exhausted afterwards!  It is exhilarating to be part of their non-stop energy, but while they seem to have an infinite supply of it, we adults tend to run out a bit sooner.  Sometimes the anticipation of tiring out can lead us to squelch the energy of the young kids. We might prefer a quieter learning environment with more structure to the active games that kids love and enjoy.  Finding a balance can be tricky, but here are a few trips to help focus young energy into productive learning games that engage kids.

Shopping in person, not on paper

Since language is meant to be used for communication, get kids involved in actually communicating with one another! Rather than sit and ask a neighbor how they are doing, station kids around a room and have them walk around, introducing themselves or surveying how others are feeling.  Rather than match food pictures and words on a worksheet, have children ‘shop’ for items on their shopping lists by visiting ‘storekeepers’ who hold certain items in their ‘stores’ around the room.  The simple act of moving around to accomplish a task can help instill the actions, words, and context into the learning experience.

I learned this lesson quickly in one class where a young boy was constantly interrupting the quiet discussion, shouting out unrelated responses, and generally being very fidgety.  As soon as we started moving in a task-related activity, he was instantly engaged, completing his task far sooner than the other students. He asked if he could help out the others and went from student to student, helping with pronunciation, giving directions, and communicating in the target language more effectively.

Every teaching moment can’t be filled with action. But incorporating movement into each class helps engage kinesthetic learners in a fun and interactive manner.  What active games help your kids learn?  Share your ideas in our comment section below!

Cartoon Culture: Part 2

Listening with new ears

Say what? The problem with translation

Perhaps it’s my academic background, looking to analyze seemingly normal situations to find the hidden meaning, but I was struck by a cartoon episode I saw the other day involving a bilingual unicorn/dog couple and their friends.  Lady Rainicorn, the Korean-speaking unicorn on Adventure Time, was conversing with her doggie husband, Jake, when Jake realized that he was the only one who understood her.  He divided his time between her and his friends, but they did not all hang out together.  Jake realized that it would be better if his friends could understand Lady Rainicorn’s language, so he found a ‘universal translator’ that enabled her words to be translated into English. The only problem was, instead of hearing her speech in her own high, sweet girl voice, the collar can only translate her words into three voices called ‘nightmare’, ‘old man’, or ‘nerdy alien’, with the old man setting being the only one that everyone could understand.  See a 90-second clip of this episode here. While Jake’s friend was glad to understand the unicorn now, Jake is unsettled because her translated voice doesn’t really represent who she is.

More than words

Translation programs have been around for a long time, and are becoming more sophisticated as technology improves, much to the dismay of language teachers!  However, as Jake notes, there are certain aspects of conversation that do not translate well or do not accurately represent what is being said.  It may be that a single word in one language has many specific variations in another language, such as the oft-quoted theory that Inuit groups have dozens of words for ‘snow.’  Similarly, in Mandarin Chinese, you cannot speak of family as ‘sister’ or ‘uncle’ without specifying if the sister is older or younger, or the uncle is from the mother’s or father’s side, by marriage or by birth.  These language complexities give a lot of insight into the culture of a particular group and without a good understanding of the cultural context, we may miss out on a lot of meaning through simple ‘translation.’  In fact, a recent study shows that language is related to our cultural behaviors: we may be more inclined to save money or find our way in unfamiliar places based on what language we speak.

When thinking about learning a new language, consider the pros and cons of a simple translation tool–are you in a desperate situation that needs quick communication to resolve a problem? Then break out Google Translate and see if it helps.  But if you’re planning on traveling to learn about a culture or getting to know a new international neighbor, take the time to learn about the language and its insights into culture.  You’ll be speaking in your own voice and connecting on a deeper level with your conversation partner!


Cartoon Culture: Part 1

Bilingualism in cartoons

Inspiration strikes when you least expect it! The other day, my son was home sick with the flu. Feverish and tired, the only action he saw all day was displayed on the television screen. Did you know Cartoon Network shows cartoons…ALL DAY? As I tried to do some work in the adjacent room, sounds of Scooby Doo and Tom & Jerry crept in constantly. Then something interesting happened. I heard another language…on a cartoon!

Talking animals…who speak world languages

Wait…maybe there is some redeeming quality to these animated shows! It turns out the show in question was Adventure Time, and the language was apparently Korean (I had to research it to be sure!). Lady Rainicorn, the magical unicorn wife of the talking dog, Jake, speaks Korean. Imagine that. What interested me most was the casual display of a basic bilingual family. Lady Rainicorn understood English-speaking Jake, and he understood her. Each spoke in their ‘native’ language to each other and to their magical unicorn puppies who understood both mom and dad.

Avoiding cultural stereotypes

There may be other cartoon characters who have spoken world languages, but the displays that I am familiar with are often stereotyped. I was excited to see two little otters speaking French in a cartoon once, but they were accompanied by berets, artists palettes, and a deliberate effort to exude French accents, changing their laughter from ‘hee-hee-hee’ to ‘hau-hau-hau’ in order to act more French. Pepe LePew, the malodorous skunk, was quite the ‘French’ lover. Drawing only on cultural stereotypes serves to highlight the differences among us, rather than show how we connect in similar ways in day-to-day life. Thankfully, multilingualism has infiltrated kid’s media in recent years in a more positive way: Dora is a problem-solving kid who also speaks Spanish. While there are certainly critics of the depiction of some bilingual characters, overall, the exposure of children to new languages in an educational and constructive way has been a welcome change.

Support for early language learning is increasing, and helping kids become accustomed to a multilingual world–even in an animated show–can provide a model for what it’s like to interact with others who speak a different language. As Jake and Lady Rainicorn go about their magical daily life, their bilingualism is not the focus of the story. It’s just the normal way they communicate while keeping their shape-shifting puppies out of trouble!

Pardonnez-moi: Learning Cultural Etiquette

Communicating with words and more

Learning to communicate involves more than just knowing what words to say. There are questions of how you say those words, when to use them appropriately, and also how to express yourself with your body,  hands, and behaviors.  I watched a World War II film recently in which an Englishman spying on German soldiers inadvertently seals his fate. He orders three drinks by holding up his middle three fingers–rather than using a thumb and two fingers as a German would–and this simple gesture gives him away.   Now, most cultural ‘faux pas’ won’t cause life or death consequences, but knowing the cultural etiquette of a country you are visiting can help you avoid embarrassing situations and manage the expectations you might have!

It’s about time.

In Greece or Brazil, punctuality is not extremely important; however, in Luxembourg you are likely to offend if you are not on time for a meeting.  Knowing the cultural expectation will help you know how to respond if you get out the door behind schedule.

Nice to meet you.

In many cultures, conversations begin with questions about how your family members are doing.  Take the time to answer and inquire about the other person’s family–these are not considered personal intrusions, but rather expressions of concern, respect, and politeness.

Don’t get touchy.

Russians might use lots of hugs, back-slapping or other physical displays when conversing, while Taiwanese are more reserved and may nod rather than shake hands upon first meeting.  In some countries, people stand very close when talking.  To others, this may feel like an invasion of ‘personal space.’

Take time to learn about the cultural etiquette of different countries.  This site offers many examples of behaviors to expect when greeting, meeting, dining, and visiting other countries.  After reading about other places, what examples of cultural etiquette can you give for YOUR country?  List your thoughts below in our comment section!