Thursday, December 31, 2015

Learning by Living: A Personal View

Learning English as a kid

Over my lifetime, I have experienced the challenges of learning a foreign language both personally and as an observer.  At eight years old, I was a Korean immigrant in a “sink or swim” language situation: with no prior English language instruction, I was enrolled in a New York public school. Scary and frustrating? You bet. I had been a very good student back in Seoul; in New York, I found myself failing my courses and lashing out in tears at my parents for ruining my life. But at the end of six months, I’d reached full fluency and productivity, able to negotiate all my classes as well as the all-important social world.

Learning Japanese as a young adult

Fast forward 10 years, and I am in college studying Japanese.  I had kept up my Korean thanks to my mother’s efforts, and I found Japanese to be relatively easy.  The grammatical structure, usage patterns and some of the Chinese character-based words were the same between the two languages. So, I had great grades.  However, when I landed in Tokyo during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I couldn’t understand much and probably had that panic-stricken look that many of the Hi-London and Hi-New-York students have upon arrival at our centers.  I made watching Japanese soap operas a part of my study plan that summer and made fast progress in mastering every-day Japanese.

Years later, I had my children in Tokyo and placed them in the local day care center at 4 (the older child) and 9 (the younger child) months with the children of store keepers and company employees who worked in the area as I myself went back to work.  I watched in fascination as they not only picked up Japanese but knew when to speak it to whom. They switched naturally between Japanese and English, with my son adopting the female speech patterns of his caregivers!

Learning French as a mature adult

We left Japan a few years later for London.  In London, we continued our experimentation with our own children and put them into the French school system at the ages of 4 and 2.  My son, at age four, conquered French between September and Christmas by constantly listening, talking, and trying the words out. Monique, at two, took a different approach.  She didn’t speak at all at first, but when she opened her mouth three month later, she was fluent.

You might envy my immersion in English at age eight; I was jealous of how naturally my much younger children picked up their new language – while I was re-visiting my own rusty high school French.  After numerous class hours and living partially in French for almost 20 years, I can understand most conversations but still make mistakes in delivery.

Starting young is a must!

We all know that the younger you start, the easier it is to learn a foreign language. Eight seems to be a bit of a magic number; after that age, even fluent speakers generally seem to retain their native accent. Young children, with their ever- changing brains, are building synapses as they play with friends, interact with the world around them, watch television, and listen to their teachers.  When they are surrounded by new experiences in a foreign country, language acquisition becomes just part of the deal.

We’re learning more about the human brain every day, and scientists tell us that our internal networks are changing and synapses rebuilding every time we learn new skills. Young or old, we can work at reshaping our brains and keeping them flexible. Youth helps, of course, but so does immersive experiential learning.  Sitting in a classroom, doing grammatical exercise in workbooks, listening to language tapes – these tools have their place.  But to really learn a language, to internalize it, get those synapses re-routed and connected, there is no substitute for experiential learning – learning by doing, by throwing yourself into a world where you are hearing and seeing that language all around you. Where you are forced to use the language to negotiate your everyday life. Where you want to learn the language because you want to participate, to connect, to have conversations with your new friends, and to live fully in the world around you.

At Horizon International through Hi-New-York and Hi-London, we are focused on making sure that everyone in your family – old or young, with brains putting up new wiring or re-routing some (ahem!) vintage synapses – benefits from challenging, fun, and immersive learning experiences.