Learning a Second Language Isn’t Easy

Both of my boys, 9 and 5, are now fluent in both Spanish and English, at least age-appropriately so, and there is one thing I keep hearing that has started to bother me. In fairness, I think I may have said it once or twice in the past myself, so please don’t think I’m getting all “high and mighty” about it.


We may say it in different ways and, of course, none of us means to be bothersome, but here is an example of how the conversation might go:


The scene: My boys and I are walking down the street together, and an acquaintance greets us on the street.

“Wow, your boys just spent an entire school year in Mexico! They must be fluent in Spanish?”

“Yes, yes, they are.”

“Well, it’s easier for them, isn’t it?”


(Insert awkward silence here.)


Yes, children under a certain age do have an amazing facility for language acquisition.

But no, the problem with the statement about being “easier” is that it’s one of those strange examples of when the actual words spoken are truer than what’s meant by them. As the conversation continues, as it always does, it becomes abundantly clear that what many folks mean by, “It’s easier for them,” is “It is easy for them,” and to that I take exception.


Learning a second language is many things, but for most of us, including kids, it’s not easy.

As for my boys, yes, they improved by leaps and bounds. Yes, they absorbed vocabulary and syntax like sponges. Yes, they appeared less self-conscious about making mistakes than many adolescents and adults do when they learn a new language.


Was it valuable? Was it enriching? Yes and yes! But was it easy?

They worked diligently to achieve what they did, every day, all day, day after day, and eventually even in their dreams at night. For months, they endured moments of awkwardness, misunderstanding, confusion and probably embarrassment, like any language learner does. Most days, they were tenacious, unrelenting, resilient and amazing. On a few, they were exhausted, resistant and frustrated. Both boys gave a herculean effort, and they triumphed.


Was it worth it?

There’s a quotation attributed to Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

My boys can now tell all their grandparents they love them in their grandparents’ own languages. They’ve sung in a Spanish choir and have probably increased their job prospects.


They tell funny jokes and laugh at the jokes of others in both languages. They don’t confuse the languages; they speak both as well as their peers, save for the most precocious. They are doing well in school and switch languages when appropriate. They can speak to 400 million more people than they could 12 months ago.


So if you want your kids to take on the task of learning a second language, tell them all the above. But there’s no point in telling them it’s easier for them while they are young, it won’t help when they are doing the hard work.

A Holiday Craft Science Project

In Mexico, Santa doesn’t bring gifts at Christmas. But don’t feel too sad for the kids, because Santa has his helpers, the Three Kings, and they do bring gifts on Jan. 6. Kids put their shoes out on the evening of Jan. 5, and gifts appear next to their shoes in the morning. Of course, these are the same three kings who followed the star and came bearing gifts on that very first Christmas.


Thinking about the three kings following that star got me to consider all the different ways the star is represented during the Christmas season. First, it was the inspiration for the original piñatas. These were seven-pointed stars, and my family still uses them for the traditional Posadas celebrated during the nine days leading up to Christmas.


Of course, in addition to these other stars, there’s that star on the tip-top of the Christmas tree too. We can’t forget that one.


All these stars got me thinking that a holiday craft project for the kids featuring a star would be great for them to do over winter break. It connects all our family’ Christmas traditions, including the Posadas, the Christmas tree and Three Kings Day.


So I went looking for a project, and what I found was all these great videos about making origami Christmas stars, which excited me because of the extra learning bonus origami delivers.


It’s easy to write off origami as just a hobby for passing time or, at most, a stress reliever. But that would be missing both the serious scientific applications and the mathematical insights it can produce. If you’d like more on this, I found a great article about how origami is being used for all kinds of scientific applications and how an ex-Cal Tech physicist from the NASA jet propulsion laboratory used his considerable knowledge of origami to come up with some cool solutions to some real problems.


As for the origami star videos, there are many on YouTube, but here are a few in case you want to try one with your kids. These are more appropriate for older kids, but you should be able to find simpler projects for younger kids on the YouTube sidebar for these videos:


1. I like this first one because the creator shows both how to make the star and how to fold it back up to put away for storage for next year.


2. I like this second one because it’s beautiful and is thoroughly explained by the young artist. It’s in two parts —part 1 and part 2.


3. This one is billed as a falling star, but I think it would adapt pretty well as a Christmas star. I like this video because, while pretty complicated, the demonstration is well done. I turned down the volume on my computer to mute the musical soundtrack, though.


So there you have it, the Christmas star, Three Kings Day, Posadas, Christmas tree stars, and origami all tied together with a bit of cool science thrown in for good measure.


What holiday craft projects do you do with your children?

Five Ideas for Helping Your Kids Be More Organized (Even If You Are Not)

Unless you grew up under the watchful eye of Captain von Trapp, the whistle-blowing patriarch of “Sound of Music” fame, organization might not come naturally. But it does have its place, and even if you haven’t been particularly organized yourself, it’s not too late.


If you’ve been organizationally challenged up until now, sit with your child and talk to him or her honestly about your own struggles with organization. Talk to him or her about solutions they think might work for both of you. You may be surprised by their own creative solutions, and they may be more likely to buy into a family plan if you’ve asked them for their thoughts.


With that, here are five places to consider starting:


1. Slow Down to Speed Up. Each Activity has a Beginning, Middle and End.Most of us are pretty good at the beginning and middle parts of an activity. Take, as an example, playing with toys. We’re all pretty good at getting them out (the beginning) and playing with them (the middle), but putting them away is often the trouble spot (the end).


Encouraging our kids to finish an activity by putting their toys or work away before moving on to the next thing will likely reduce the stress level, not to mention the mountain of toys, at the end of the day. It won’t happen overnight, so hang in there. But it does make a difference. Try a quick check at five minutes to the hour each hour, when everyone stops to see if all the activities they’ve ended during the hour are truly ended, i.e. been put away.


2. Everything Has a Place to Live. Sometimes we all get moving so quickly it ends up bogging us down. Lost keys are the perfect example. If we toss everything onto the kitchen counter as we walk in the door, those keys are more likely to get buried out of sight. But if we slow down enough to hang them up in the same place every time we enter the house, we will save ourselves from having to search for them when they’re lost.The same is true for the kids’ shoes, backpacks, homework, lunch boxes, sports equipment, oh, and cellphones.


Providing specific spots to place these things will help keep the house and your kids organized. And the closer that spot is to the door, the less chance there will be for things to get dropped like so many leaves from a deciduous tree.


3. Introduce Calendars, Schedules, and Lists. Refer to Them Often. Kids like structure and often feel more calm and relaxed with a little bit of structure in their lives. Kids’ lives are jammed with new and surprising things, so knowing what to expect can be a welcome relief. Calendars are great for a general overview of what everyone in the family is doing. Daily schedules are great for making sure no homework is forgotten. Lists are great for individual tasks like the bedtime routine:


1. Place dirty clothes in the hamper

2. Hang or fold clean clothes and put away

3. Put on pajamas

4. Go to the bathroom

5. Wash hands

6. Brush teeth

7. Read

8. Pray

9. Kiss goodnight and turn out the light


4. Counting Backward To Be on Time. An important skill for kids to learn is how to count backward in time in order to be on time.

Consider this example: We need to be at school at 8:30 a.m. It takes 10 minutes to get in the car and drive there (8:20 a.m.). But you need a margin for error of 20 percent. Unpredictable things can happen like traffic, a horse in the road, that sort of thing, so that’s two minutes more (8:18 a.m.). You need five minutes to make your lunch (8:13 a.m.). You need five minutes to brush your teeth and put your shoes on (8:08 a.m.), and so on.


So if you haven’t started all this by 8:08 a.m., you’re already late! You will be amazed at how eye-opening this exercise can be for kids.


5. Be Supportive. Imagine and Discuss the Benefits of Organization Together.Chances are you weren’t born naturally organized and neither were your kids, so the goal is progress, not perfection. Discuss with your kids your own problem areas. Point out how an organized life means less busy, repetitive work overall, less frustration from looking for misplaced things, more tranquility in the home and more free time to do what you want.


What tips do you have to keep your family organized, and what organizational struggles do you face?