Child's play: the easiest way into a foreign language

It was during "hide-and-seek" in Montpellier, France, that I realized I'd been wrong. My assumptions about what my kids would learn about language from traveling were too narrow.

We had been living in England for a year and, in lieu of traditional schooling, my two children, Kyla and Charlie, had been homeschooled. And they got a significant part of their education from trips to nearby countries.

Before going to a new city, I would teach a few basics about the place - the foods the country is known for, some history, phrases in the language. It's not that I expected them to learn French after a week in La Provence, but I wanted them to be able to say the basics: hello, goodbye, thank you.

Part of why I tried to teach these basics is simple politeness. We encounter so many Americans in Europe who go to restaurants without so much as a phrase book, and expect the waiter to explain, in English, what each item on the menu is.

But it's more than that. I want them to see how their own language relates to the world, to get a small taste of the intricate web of words. I want them to notice when words of other languages pop up in English. Maybe seeing how much of our language we owe to our neighbors can help us appreciate those neighbors more.

I also want them to understand a little bit about how arbitrary each country's boundaries can be.

When we were in Girona, Spain, we quickly noticed exit signs in Spanish and Catalan. Since we had previously been in France, it made sense to Kyla, when I pointed out how the Catalan word for exit, "sortida," seemed like a combination of the Spanish, "salida," and the French, "sortie." The fluidity of the sounds over borders helps us to understand how fluid the borders really are.

Charlie, especially, loves learning words in different languages. He's not the shy type and enjoys communicating, so it wasn't surprising to hear him, when a shopkeeper in Avignon said "merci" after a purchase, pipe up with "Merci boucoup! Au revoir!"

But what surprised me was how my children have been able to find common ground with other kids with whom they don't share enough words to have even the most basic conversations.

At a playground in Montpellier, Charlie wanted to play hide-and-seek with the other kids. I scoured through our French phrasebook, but it didn't have the words that we needed. If we had wanted to know how to say "shoe horn" or "jellyfish," we would have had no problem. But I haven't encountered a phrase book in any language that tells you how to say "hide-and-seek."

I noticed that one of the dads was bilingual, so I asked if he knew how to say "hide-and-seek" in French. He came up with "cache-cache."

I told Charlie, and he ran around to the children on the playground, covering his eyes, then pulling away his hands and saying, "Cache-cache? Cache-cache?" Before I knew it, Charlie and six French children were dashing around the playground, hiding behind trees and under slides, calling out, "One, two, three" or "Un, deux, trois," depending on the child.

Watching this game of "cache-cache," I was struck by how unstoppable two human drives are: communication and play. When I'm in a non-English-speaking country, sometimes I retreat a bit. It's easy to feel alone when you don't have the words to express thoughts beyond asking for water or where the restroom is.

I'm self-conscious about pronouncing words incorrectly. I'm spooked by that blank look on a shopkeeper's face after I think that I've said something completely reasonable but have mispronounced it so badly that it was indecipherable.

But children don't let that stop them; they are less prone to embarrassment and their need for contact with other children is so great.

Not all my kids' interactions with non-English speaking children are so sweet. On the beach in Spain, after a little girl kept knocking over Charlie's masterpiece, he demanded to know how to say "Hands off my sand castle!" in Spanish.

He resorted to waving his finger at the girl and saying, "No!" But, just like the "cache-cache" kids, she got the message.

It's tempting to try to measure children's learning in a quantitative way. When we were planning our travels, I thought of how many words my children would learn, how much geography, etc.

But the most important things that they learned would never fit into a phrase book.

Jody Mace now lives in Charlotte, N.C., where she is a school librarian.

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