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.