Friday, October 15, 2010

Windows of Opportunity

Recently, I started reading a book called Multilingual Children. When I saw it at the library, I was hesitant to grab it off the shelf, thinking that it wouldn't apply to our situation. However, in reading parts of this book, I have this renewed excitement at starting Kaya on a 3rd language in Kindergarten.

I know, I's a bit early to be thinking about that, since she's not even two. But it's good to have goals and dreams, right? Lately, I'd been feeling so excited about the possibility of an Environmental School in our area that I'd put our ideas of early trilingualism aside. But in reading this chapter on Windows of Opportunity, I remembered how excited I get at the idea of her being trilingual by 8.

Three and a Half Windows

According to the author, there are 3 Windows of Opportunity for language learning. The first one is between birth to 9 months of age. During that time, they are simply sponges, and they more input they can get in whatever languages are available to them, the better, as they are forming neural pathways faster then than at any other time in their lives.

There is another window between the 1st and the 2nd, which falls between 9 months and 2 years...which is really only a window for children who have an aptitude for language. She says that for those children, any exposure to any languages that they get in this time can severely affect how easily they are able to pick up the languages later. When I read this, I got very excited about the idea of "using" the next 3 months to foster communication between my step mom (Ecuadorian, native Spanish speaker) and Kaya. I recognize that I could speak to her in Spanish, too, but I don't want to confuse her with adding another language that I speak to her. She has been so stellar at selecting which language to use with me and which to use with everyone else, that I don't want to confuse her with a 3rd from me. Apparently, introducing a third from someone else shouldn't be a problem, but rather a possible benefit for later (especially if we go with a Spanish immersion program in the neighborhood!).

The 2nd Window of Opportunity is between age 4 and 6. From what people say, teachers especially, there is a general stagnation in language between 2 and 4, where they aren't making nearly the progress that they were before, and will later. So, during this 2 year period is an optimal time to introduce a language (first, second, or third). The more I consider the Spanish idea, the more excited I get about it. Not only would it be wonderful for Kaya to be able to speak with Rosa (her grandma) in her native language, but it would be really nice for Geoff to be able to learn along with her. He was excited for us to raise her bilingually in Spanish until I pulled the rug out and told him I didn't have it in me to foster a relationship with her in Spanish. If we introduce her to Spanish in an immersion program in Kindergarten (Beech Elementary), maybe that could make up for that minor disappointment.

Apparently there is another lag between 6 and 8, but then at 8 starts the 3rd Window of Language Learning Opportunity. From what I read, there is no neurological difference between how an 8 year old's brain learns language, and how an adult's does. The differences lie in everything else that affects language learning success: windows of opportunity; aptitude; motivation; strategy; consistency; opportunity and support; linguistic relationship between the 1st and 2nd languages; siblings; gender; and hand use. I was pretty shocked to hear that there is no neurological difference there. But in reality, all those other things are huge differences between adults and children, especially when taking strategy into account.


So, in addition to being completely inspired about Kaya becoming an early trilingual, I decided that I REALLY want to be a polyglot. I love knowing 3 languages, but there's something so fascinating to me about that change from 'trilingual' to 'polyglot'. So, for a few days, the debate was between Italian and Chinese. Actually, it's been a debate for at least a year or two, as I've been thinking about and wanting to learn another language for a LONG time. But every time I checked in with myself about 'why', it didn't seem like "because I want to" was enough of a reason.

But then, Geoff and I were standing in the backyard the other day, and I was feeling completely overwhelmed at the state of our surroundings. We'd done all this beautiful planting in the spring after removing an entire ground-covering of 'Lords and Ladies (a poisonous non-native).

We'd also built and planted a beautiful eco-roof on our shed, which is now a weed-roof. He took my head to his shoulder, wrapped his arm around me, and said,
"It's the journey that counts."

So I started learning Chinese on Monday, and I LOVE it. On Sunday, when I hopped on to LiveMocha, a free language learning site on the web, I felt pretty overwhelmed at the idea of learning Chinese. I did ok on the first two activities, but by the 3rd, when they were already wanting me to produce language after only minimal exposure to each word, I gave up...partly on the program, partly on the language. But on Monday, once I decided that Chinese makes a whole lot more sense for me to learn than Italian, I started looking for a Chinese teacher on Craigslist. In the process of searching, I found this GREAT link to an online business college that offers the opportunity to purchase increments of time on the online Rosetta Stone website. For years, my mom tried to get me to try Rosetta Stone. She'd heard SO much advertising that she thought, for sure, it must be good. I poo-pooed the idea for years, thinking that it must be a gimmick...there's no REAL good language learning software out there.

But I was wrong.
Rosetta Stone gets my endorsement as a language teacher.

Admittedly, I had my doubts on Wednesday evening as I was on my 3rd day of Chinese study. I'd hit this point where I had absolutely NO idea what they were trying to teach me, or rather, what I was supposed to be learning. I began to wonder whether Rosetta Stone was up to the challenge of teaching a language that doesn't share the Roman alphabet.

But last night, my worries were put to rest as things started clicking into place and I can listen to these Chinese sentences being spoken and identify the picture they are describing. I can figure out which characters belong where, and even figure out what many of them mean, just by looking at these pictures and listening to the narrator describe them (Rosetta Stone uses NO English, or native language...the target language is taught through repetitive identification and well-placed pictures.

So, I'm on Day 5 and eager as a beaver to quit writing and start studying. Geoff is away for a bit, and I'm excited to have the place to myself to dive in and 'play' as long as I want.

Oh, and that link, should you also want to start learning (or pick up again) another language:

Basically, you can purchase 3, 6, 9, or 12 months of online access to Rosetta Stone, Version 3, for a fraction of the cost that you'd pay to purchase the program. I paid $50, for example, for 3 months. So far, after 4 days and about 4 hours, I've made it 3/4 through Unit 1, and there are 4 Units per level...on Rosetta Stone website, each level costs $249 (there are 3-5, depending upon the language). So, if I maintain this rate, I will make it through Level 1 in 3-4 weeks? Which means, if I stayed on it, I COULD do a Level a Month--SO, I'd be paying only $50 for 3 levels, saving $400 over purchasing the actual program. (ok, so maybe that might be rushing things...but even if I do 2 levels in 3 months, that's still $300 or so...). Clearly, if you're dedicated, this is the WAY to go! It's the older version, so you don't get the online native speaker access...but it's a good savings, and a great way to see if you are going to stick with it...which was my initial reasoning for going this route.

Thanks again for joining me in this journey...not any cute Kaya anecdotes this time, but suffice it to say, she's as cute as EVER, and saying multiple new words a day in both languages. YAY to that!


  1. I have such an awesome bro-in-law!

  2. Kids are remarkable. One of my best friends has a 7-year old daughter. Both he and his wife speak separate minority languages at home, plus English being the societal language. By the time she was 4, she was comfortably trilingual. The opportunity arose for her to start her schooling in a fourth language, which they took up with the resort of a standard English school if she struggled.

    The school has a great immersion system and a good number of native speaker children, so after several months she'd shown huge progress. At 7 she is now a native speaker of 4 languages.

    Although the school language and English are her stronger languages, the 2 minority languages are still spoken at home, although my friend and his wife both need to be actively engaged in her language development, so they teach her to read and write in the home languages, ensure she has access to various native speakers and activities in those languages.

    Most of all they're conscious of continuing to speak the minority languages in public (shops, public transport etc) so as to reinforce to her that speaking a non-English language is perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes switching to English to be 'polite' in public can be seen by kids as being a signal that there's something bad about speaking the minority language.

    Obviously all kids are different, but if Kaya has no language learning difficulties, bringing in a third or fourth language at an early age should be no problem. The Basque and Breton school systems both produce trilingual graduates as a base level.


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