The Meaning of Meaning in Second Language Learning

The Meaning of Meaning in Second Language Learning

By Karen Nemeth

This week in my workshops on second language learning we discussed some differences between the language environment of a baby learning L1 and the experiences of an older child learning L2. In the whole first year of life, parents and caregivers talk to infants about what’s happening currently in their surroundings.   They sing songs with rhythm, rhyme and repetition.  They read stories with pictures that connect to the words.  They talk about the books, toys, and items in the home and outdoors that really seem to capture the child’s attention.  A preverbal infant will quickly train adults to respond to their interests.  Have you ever tried to read a story to a squirmy 9 month old when they are not interested????

A child entering a new school to learn a new language is faced with an entirely different context for that language development.  They are generally expected to learn the language that is happening in the classroom that is controlled by the interests and goals of the teacher.  They may spend long periods of time when no one is directly interacting with them and they are expected to pick up language from watching what other people are interested in.  They are asked questions for which there is a likelihood that they can give a wrong answer.  Teachers become concerned, and rightfully so, when they realize some newcomers stay quiet for extended periods of time.

Perhaps, instead of trying to engage the child, you could allow the child the time to engage the teacher.   Talk to the parents or do a home visit to find out what the child enjoys outside of school.  Spend time just being with the child – not necessarily talking right away – just doing what they do and enjoying what they enjoy.  Perhaps show a variety of books or materials and see which one the child picks and use that as a starting point to move on to the content you know they need to learn in your program.

Is the child painting a picture? Pull up a piece of paper and paint with him – interacting nonverbally about what each of you is doing – and point out the interesting things that happen when you mix colors.  Is he bouncing a ball out on the playground? Bring a ball over so you can show each other your fancy bouncing moves – and maybe work in a little counting while you’re at it.   As you get to know the child as an individual, despite the language difference, your ability to work your teacher magic and engage him in what you want him to learn will be enhanced.  Keep your goals in mind – and the paths to those goals a bit more flexible.  In one of my multi-age workshops I asked where teachers start when teaching newcomers the English alphabet.  The elementary school teachers all shouted “We start with A!”  And do you know what the preschool teachers countered? “No! We start with the first letter of the child’s first name!”  Which one is focusing on teacher goals and which one is focusing on the child’s interest?

And then I came home and saw this article from the Center for Early Language and Literacy reporting on research that shows young children’s interests really do play a key role in early literacy and language development.



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