We’ve all admired young children speaking what seemed to be the most elegant French or a particularly articulate Chinese, thinking that the child in question must certainly be exceptionally gifted. But upon reflection, we reason that this is obviously the child’s mother tongue, and we realize that we, too, would have had the same capacity to dazzle non-English speakers when we were toddlers.

Often the ability to speak two or more languages is reserved for those lucky few raised in bilingual households, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Anyone with the capacity to learn a first language has the aptitude to learn a second. So why does it seem so daunting?

Many parents have themselves studied languages in classroom settings throughout their student careers, unfortunately without ever having gained any real competency. Thus, the way in which one learns a language remains a mystery to most and seems a formidable subject for many homeschool parents to approach. It may be comforting to know that over the past century the language experts also have struggled and experimented in this area, and they certainly have not finished their work. However, looking at how language was taught in the past and examining the thought behind the methods developed over the last century can help dispel the “it’s all Greek to me” aura that often hovers over this important study.

Two Historical Methods

A very early technique of language learning is the Grammar-Translation Method, historically used in the study of classical languages (Greek and Latin) and applied to the study of foreign languages at the end of the eighteenth, throughout the nineteenth, and into the twentieth centuries. Simply described, this approach centers on the translation of phrases and literary texts, focusing on grammar and its rules. Lessons are taught in the student’s native tongue, and vocabulary is learned through translation. The Reading Method is a variation of this approach, developed in the 1920s under the supposition that limiting the activity to reading alone was the most practical and effective way of learning a language.

These historical, formalistic methods are often considered to be what one thinks of as traditional language learning. The major disadvantages are that the target language is not actively used, vocabulary and grammar are taught isolated from context, and the texts themselves are treated as mere exercises. In the twentieth century the focus of language learning shifted from academic reasons to communicative necessity, prompting a plethora of theories, studies, and new approaches. Many of these methods attempt to imitate or capture, each in its own way, the process of mother-tongue language acquisition.

The Direct Method

Perhaps in complete opposition to the Grammar-Translation Method is the Direct Method. Developed in the first half of the twentieth century, it places its emphasis on the student actively using the target language in realistic situations. The mother tongue is never used; translation is forbidden; material is first presented orally with an emphasis on speaking and listening skills; grammar and culture are taught implicitly. Instead of going back and forth between two languages, thinking in the target language is encouraged. Techniques include reading aloud, the pairing of images and words, role-playing, and employing paraphrases and synonyms to explain words.

The Direct Method strives to replicate the total immersion of a child learning his native language, but can this experience be duplicated at an older age and/or in a classroom several times a week? Many of the principles of this method have validity; however, strict adherence to a system of this sort, particularly outside the country of the target language and with relatively minimal contact time, can sometimes lead to frustration.

The Audio-Lingual Method

The Audio-Lingual Method, developed for American troops in Europe during World War II, is based on behavioral theories from earlier in the century. Here, language is seen as a mechanical activity, and learning occurs via the acquisition of linguistic habits. Students practice language patterns through structured dialogues and drills, with an abundant use of tapes (CDs) and visual aids; emphasis is placed on pronunciation; memorization and mimicry are encouraged; explicit grammar instruction isn’t given.

Of course, components of Audio-Lingualism continue to be used regularly today. Indeed, with the learning of any subject, a certain amount of repetition is important; however, from the 1970s onward this system fell from popularity as a complete methodology with the rise of the concept that language is a system of communication and should therefore be taught with an end goal of communicative competence. New approaches took into account the person as a whole, recognizing the importance of a positive relationship between student and teacher, student with other students, and student with his or her environment.

Contemporary Methodologies

Another valuable learning theory that has greatly influenced language teaching and has led to new methodologies is the idea that students are all individuals with differing strengths, weaknesses, and ways of learning. For example, Total Physical Response is a method that purports language must first be internalized before verbal participation is possible. In teaching, classroom roles would be similar to those of a parent with a child in which the child must respond physically to the words of the teacher. This type of teaching works well with students who need to be more physically active. A good example of a TPR exercise would be the game called Simon Says, and with some imagination, features of this method can be used with older students as well.

The Silent Way Method focuses on problem solving, in which the student discovers the language, its rules, and its functions through inductive reasoning. This method could be considered the opposite of Audio-Lingualism as the teacher only prompts the students, who must work out the problem for themselves. An everyday example of this approach’s application occurs when a teacher doesn’t correct a student outright but instead indicates that a mistake has been made by means of a gesture or a question, thus allowing the pupil to come to the right answer on his own.

The aim of the Communicative Approach is communicative, not linguistic, competence. Grammar is taught, but more as a reflection rather than a systematic means to an end. The target language is the normal medium in the classroom; lessons are active and student-centered, using functional language for real-life situations. All four skills—speaking, listening, reading, and writing—are developed in a variety of ways, using authentic resources as much as possible, particularly for intermediate and advanced levels. Student errors are seen as part of the natural process in a learning environment in which students are trying to use the language creatively and spontaneously.

What’s Best for You?

So what is the best approach? Teachers need to examine all methods and incorporate the most effective aspects of each according to their particular situations. Generally, a mix works best, and many find that the Communicative Approach is the most successful all-around method. Furthermore, incorporating a variety of activities within the focus of each lesson helps reinforce key points while maintaining interest, particularly with beginner, intermediate, and younger students.

How to begin is always a difficult question, but when to start is sooner rather than later. The first decision is which language to study—one from the family’s heritage, one for future work or vacation possibilities, or one for which there is a good mother-tongue teacher in the community? Are there siblings or friends studying the same language for possible interaction and group activities? Is the parent/teacher already familiar with a language to be able to start out and/or help the student?

While a proficient (preferably native) speaker is always a plus in a language teacher, with planning and study a parent can do more than he may think, especially if he has some knowledge of the language in question. Naturally, at a certain point the student will need to have contact with a qualified speaker; however, even those fortunate enough to be able to hire a language tutor will find that assistance and reinforcement outside the lessons can be a great asset to the learner. In this regard, basic courses and textbooks must always have an audio and/or video component. Answer keys are essential with exercise books. Pictures and illustrations are indispensable in beginning and intermediate books, with public libraries often being a good source for supplemental material.

But even with the most careful preparation, how a student reacts in a new language situation is not easy to foresee. An otherwise confident, outgoing individual may withdraw when suddenly faced with the prospect of expressing himself in an unknown language. Therefore, correction should be gentle and criticism avoided. The student shouldn’t be pushed to speak before he or she is ready, and an approach compatible with his preferred learning style will increase motivation and effectiveness.

Learning a language gives one the opportunity of experiencing a culture. Those youngsters we’ve heard speaking French and Chinese are impressive, and they have something to share. Give your child the tools to see what they have to say.

Language Games/Activities for Beginners

(to be conducted in the target language)

Simon Says

Easy Card Games, i.e., Go Fish

Bingo with words and pictures

Matching games with words and pictures

Role-plays, i.e., with introductions using toys and stuffed animals

Pantomiming animals

Rhythmic chanting with clapping

Singing with hand motions

Tic/Tac/Toe and Hangman with vocabulary

Resource Materials—General Shopping Sites

www.WOR.com (foreign language resources)

www.MultiCulturalKids.com (multilingual and cultural resources)

www.ApplauseLearning.com (multilingual resources)

www.LittlePim.com (foreign language resource for infants and toddlers)

www.MultilingualBooks.com (multi-lingual resources)

www.ISSA.nl/rc_bs.html (children’s literature published in many languages)

www.BilingualJourney.com (Spanish)

www.Alphabet-Garten.com (German)

www.ABCKinderladen.com (German)

www.ChinaSprout.com (Chinese)

www.Childbook.com (Chinese)

Karen Haid is a certified ESL and Italian language teacher who, having learned two foreign languages as an adult, wonders how many she would have spoken had she begun her language odyssey sooner.

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse®Magazine, Winter 2010-11.

Visit The Old Schoolhouse® at www.TheHomeschoolMagazine.com  to view a full-length sample copy of the print magazine especially for homeschoolers. Click the graphic of the moving computer monitor on the left. Email the Publisher at Publisher@TheHomeschoolMagazine.com.