There are so many wonderful ways for our children to learn languages today. Online programs offer interactive multimedia opportunities that we could have only dreamed of having when we were young. Bilingual books and DVDs can be found in many libraries around the country, and children’s language learning classes abound.
What parents and teachers sometimes forget is the value of context when it comes to learning a language. Flash cards and online vocabulary games can be fun, but they don’t offer the kind of language development that human conversation provides. We use language for communication, and therefore it is best learned in its natural form: through discussions, conversations and stories.
For children who are already bilingual or are learning a language for the first time, the goal is technically the same: to provide as much varied language exposure as possible. No single approach will work for every single child, in part because every child is at a different language level. The key is to have a variety of opportunities for language exposure and interaction so that every child is benefiting in his or her own way.
Below are tips on how to use language in context at home or in the classroom:
- Read out loud: You have heard it before and here we emphasize it again: reading to children out loud is an amazing way to introduce and strengthen vocabulary in context in meaningful ways. Even books that are below a child’s language level can be beneficial since it establishes more subtle elements of language which we often forget about, such as intonation, rhythm, speed, accent and more. Better yet, encourage children to read out loud to one another!
- Circle time: Having children come together to do show-and-tell or discuss a specific topic is an excellent way to encourage children to listen to others and use language themselves. Depending on the personality of the children in your class, it may be best to keep the circles small and less intimidating. Make it clear that laughing about other children’s language skills is an absolute no-no. Explain that everyone is at a different level when it comes to mastering a language and the key is to encourage one another to feel comfortable and supported.
- Play Games: Playing games in a specific language is a wonderful way for everyone to get involved. Make sure that the game being played incorporates language use but is also easy enough for everyone to participate in. Children shouldn’t feel panic and worry about language skills when such games are played.
- Sing Songs: Singing together is a wonderful way to learn language in context. The process of singing songs repeatedly helps to commit sentences and verb forms to memory. Plus, it gives children who are feeling insecure with their language skills the opportunity to master words and sentences.
- One-on-one conversations: Take time out during each week to sit in a quiet corner with each child for some one-on-one conversation time. Having this special time away from others can really help a child blossom. It also provides an opportunity for the adult and child to form a bond of mutual trust. Children need to know that they are truly heard by the key adults in their lives, especially when their language skills are still developing.
Language learning is only partly about learning words and how to put them together into correct sentences. It is also about our emotions and social interactions. We associate feelings with many words which we use. This is why learning words in context is key: to understand the nuances of a given language, we need to experience the language personally through interactions with others. These human bonds are as important as the words that we learn in the process.
What is wonderful about learning language in context is that it comes so naturally! All we have to do is spend time with our children and students, talking, playing, conversing and laughing. This is the greatest language gift of all!
Photo credit: WellspringCS
What are your tips for providing children and students with contextual language opportunities? Which do your children and students enjoy the most?