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19 April 2017

5 Days of Books: Second Language Literacy

Foreign language learning is a challenge. Lots of people take classes in one or more new languages; a relatively small number of people actually make the leap into meaningful fluency in their second language. Fortunately, a number of the people who have made that leap have talked about what they do. I've spent a fair amount of time over the past two or three years reading about what adult learners who have successfully become fluent in a second language say, and also lurking in groups of parents who are passing heritage languages to their children, and there are some striking similarities between what the two groups say and recommend, and it has profoundly impacted how I go about working with our family's second language.

The biggest takeaway that I've had from reading what these people say is that you have to make room for your new language in your life. The language that stays in the classroom, and never gets integrated into your daily routine, is probably not going to be a language where you ever become comfortable. Both adult learners and people who pass along heritage language talk about the mass of time that's necessary to attain fluency: they recommend aiming for exposure to the second language (L2) for roughly a third of the day. This includes conversation, obviously, but things like the music you listen to, the talk radio in the background, and yes, the books you read, count as well. The exposure adds up, and when combined with active study, becomes a powerful boost to your L2 skills.

Don't wait to buy books until you've already become fluent. Get the books now. Literacy follows books; it doesn't precede them. It doesn't matter that you can't read them yet. Buy them, and work on them a little at a time, and you will grow into them. 

Literacy follows books in English; it works the same way in your L2. The same things that support literacy in your child's first language will support and facilitate it in the new one. Get picture books. Board books. Bilingual books. It's ok if they're "too young". They won't feel too young, because the work of figuring out the unfamiliar words will make them challenging. Amazon has an amazing variety of books in foreign languages. I've been able to find books in Japanese and Welsh without having to delve into Amazon.jp or anything crazy like that. I've even been able to sometimes get Japanese books at the local Half-Price Books. Buy the books. Flip through them. Look for words that you recognize. Then, get cozy and play around with your dictionary. If you get stuck, you can take a picture of the page and ask what's happening on the HiNative app - they've been very helpful for me when that's happened. Every book will grow your vocabulary. The first one is hard. The second one, too. But it does get better; you will start to find words that you know already.

Preschoolers are famous for latching onto a certain book and demanding that we read it again and again. There are reasons for why they do this crazy thing: they are learning from all that repetition. We can learn from our youngest language learners, and imitate the things they do naturally when they are learning their first language to help us acquire our second.

Research about reading to children has repeatedly demonstrated this phenomenon, although researchers are not sure why some children develop such strong attachments to particular books. What seems clear, though, is that children’s preferences drive learning, and repeated exposure to a story can deliver benefits in several developmental domains, including vocabulary and motor areas.
-Repeat After Me

I have for several years been slowly building a library of picture books in Japanese, and it is remarkable how many times I need to read a book for it to feel reasonably fluent to read it to myself. And reading it to my kids reasonably well requires still more practice. One of the results of this is that investing in a picture book - even very simple board books - gives a great return on the investment: the books last as vehicles of active learning far longer than I expected them to when I started building our L2 library. There is a surprisingly large amount of language used in simple picture books and toddler songs about colors and numbers! These things build our base in the same way that they build our munchkins' base in their native language.

Sometimes, you luck out, and you find a classic that has been translated. The Very Hungry Caterpillar has been translated into a host of languages. Not only did we find the book, but we later found that someone had set it to music, which is extra exciting: we then had the correct pronunciation of every word in the book, which was immensely helpful.

Figuring out search terms and specific titles can be challenging, but if you can find them, poems in your L2, something along the lines of Mother Goose, would be a great asset. Each language plays just a little bit differently, and the poetry that they teach their children is an introductory course in that play. They also form a body of common knowledge that most speakers of the language share, so if you can break into that, then you are adding depth to your L2 experience.

One place that I always recommend turning to for L2 text as soon as possible is to scripture. The Church has the Bible and other scripture (as well as other materials) in a host of languages. For some of them, there is audio available in the regular Gospel Library app. You can also get Bible text and audio through Faith Comes By Hearing, which has the Bible in more languages than I had realized existed! There is something special about scripture (obviously), and even if you stumble along a single verse or a single sentence at a time at first, it is well worth the effort of making the attempt: I find that it brings the Holy Spirit into the whole effort, and boosts the whole project in a way that nothing else ever can come close to.

All this week, I'm going to be posting about books. Stop by again to read about:

The 5 Days of Books series is part of the Homeschool Review Crew Annual Blog Hop: 5 Days of Homeschooling. Click this graphic to see what other Crew members are writing about.

5 Days of Homeschool Annual Blog Hop - 2017

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