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Language Obsessed


I have witnessed a fascinating development in my household recently. My 11-year-old son is obsessed with learning foreign languages. First it was Spanish. Then German. And then he added Chinese.

At the moment, he hasn't mastered much more than how to count to 10 in Spanish and German. And learning Chinese is still in the pipe-dream phase. But he is motivated. He found a software package he plans to use for Spanish, which he sees as a very practical language because we have a lot of Spanish-speaking people in our community, and some of the kids on his soccer team are bilingual. And recently, on a family trip to Vermont, a girl who had just moved to the U.S. from Germany taught him how to count to 10 in German. He spent the rest of the night counting to 10 in German, over and over. Nearly drove us all crazy.

Why is this important? Well, the honest truth is I have never seen my 11-year-old this motivated to learn anything academic. Of course, this may just be a passing fancy, something that seems cool to him now, but will fizzle out once he sees how difficult it is to learn a language. But maybe not.

Education Week has devoted quite a bit of coverage lately to the nation's growing interest in the teaching of foreign languages, particularly those languages--such as Arabic and Chinese--that would be useful to know for economic, political, and national security reasons.

But what really fascinates me is students' motivation to learn languages. I don't think my son is an anomaly. Other kids seem to have a similar level of motivation to learn languages.

And that raises a question: If they are motivated to learn, why do so many schools around the country (including my school district) wait until middle school before they even start teaching languages? Why not start in elementary school? Why not tap into this motivation to learn sooner?


Our youngest daughter attended an elementary school that introduced foreign language as early as 1st grade. It was a great learning experience, and the students quickly mastered what they were taught. The program was soon discontinued because of a critical shortage of foreign language teachers at the high school level forced the district to reassign the teacher. However, perhaps the hiring of more bilingual teachers and the encouragement of using bilingual instruction in regular classes throughout a school, would be a possible alternative...a milder version of the immersion model and more economical.

Are you assuming that teachers understand motivation and can accurately identify what drives desire and passion in the lives of children? As a former teacher now advisor to the advisors I will share that I could not articulate my process for meeting a child's needs. Time to think about what motivates a child? You must have the teaching profession confused with another career where people are given the time to explore ideas of personal interest.

How will teachers afford their students opportunities to explore what truly motivates them when they have not been extended those same opportunities. The irony of a learning institution that seeks to educate children for success in the world ahead that stifles moments that might lead to brilliance and then ensures this effect by overwhelming its change agents (teachers) by creating a system that ensures the status quo.

Hmm? Your son's passion for exploring the languages happens to coincide with the prescribed set of curricular objectives for the middle school years. As you have shared, he feels engaged and motivated. I wonder if you might be able to anticipate the next time he might become motivated.

Here's a few sites you may be interested in:

A 14 year old's view on working smarter and how his high school and peers continue to prepare him for a world that doesn't value harder and longer: http://thinking-forward.typepad.com/working_smarter/

And the parent blog that my business partner and I created: http://www.thinking-forward.com

You can find a reference to your post on the latter.


Joe Bruzzese


It seems that Americans have an off-and-on relationship with the learning of foreign languages. In the 60s there was huge interest and, when I taught French in the 70s you could tell that the interest was still there. But it seems to have petered out over the years--no sputnik race or cold war. For a _valuing of fl learning_ to really stick in our country my experience is that there has to be an attitude at the country's leadership level that working with other countries counts. You will always find that many kids in the middle school years display interest in foreign language. It is developmental. But it must be capitalized on by school and parental supports and grown from there. As for learning at younger ages, it is my experience that they learn the pronunciation very well at younger ages, and get a good foundation for cultural interest but they often don't retain the actual vocab and fluencies unless the programs are continuous into the later school years. That's my experience at a teacher of foreign language over a 27 year period form 1975-2002.

Carolyn Fidelman

Many schools in areas bordering Mexico do teach Spanish in elementary school. Of course, schools throughout the U.S. should be following their lead.

However, I applaud you son's wanting to learn on his own -- a language(s) of his own choice. This may be a big part of why he's so motivated.
Kids get so little choice about what they do in school, although outside of school they have many choices about how they'll spend their time and effort.

I'd be interested knowing what you, and, in particular, your son think(s) about this comment.

Ken is right, self determining activities increase motivation.

I've read in some early childhood development magazines that children are able to master languages during the ages of 2 and 10. Genrally speaking, the language proficiency door closes shortly after that said time frame. I wish that the American school system chose to teach foreign languages before high school.

I think that it is wonderful that your son chooses to pursue language because it is important to be able to effectively communicate with others. Beyond the fact that it useful in the corporate world, it allows other foreign speakers to know that he is interested in them as people. Kudos to you son for making an honest effort to increase his knowledge of others.

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