So you've made the right decision and decided to get your kids learning a foreign language. But, you need to find classes because you don't speak one yourself. Well, what do you look for? You're looking for two key elements - fun and immersion. And both really boil down to excellent teachers.
Do you remember your language classes from high school or college? You sat there and were given lists of rules or went through endless verb conjugation drills. It's not surprising most people don't develop a passion for learning a language. Whether you're a kid or an adult, learning has to be engaging. Learning is an emotional choice. We seek out learning experiences in things that we enjoy. I bet you've got friends that couldn't get above a C in math when they were a kids, but they could tell you every single football player stat for their favorite team back to 1970. If we're interested, we learn well. It's why we choose our majors or enter the job fields that we do. Not only are we willing to continue enjoyable learning experiences, we learn more, too. Emotion heightens the ability to recall information learned at the time, so we're actually learning more when we're really enjoying it. If a program consists of a lot of drills and book work, it's not going to help your child learn.
The other key factor is immersion. This is the best and most efficient way to learn a language. Children and adults fully immersed in a language that they have to use pick up that language, on average, in 6 months to a year. This is why you've never met a Peace Corp member that doesn't speak the language of their placement. If you've got an immersion program at your school, this is far and away the best choice. To become conversationally fluent for everyday communication, you need to spend 30% of your waking hours regularly immersed in the foreign language. The only way this is going to happen is at an immersion program the children attend every day. Extracurricular programs of a shorter variety provide good foundations for language learning and use, but will not develop full fluency (however, they're definitely the best option if you don't have an immersion program near you).
Finally, the most important thing that ties the two items above together are good teachers. Meet the teachers, watch a class if you can. How is their rapport? Are the lessons engaging? Do they enforce immersion in the class? Finding good foreign language teachers is extremely hard. It takes far more than just being able to speak the language or being knowledgeable about language acquisition. They've actually got to be able to apply what they know in a way that gets students excited and talking. Teaching is 8 parts attitude and 2 parts skill. I say this because you can train passionate teachers, and good schools will. But you can't do anything who knows a lot, but has no passion for their subject or the profession.
Looking for immersion programs near you? Here are sites to help you find them throughout the US.
French List - From Association of French Schools in North America (Note: This only lists ones associated with them, there are more).
Spanish and All Other Languages List - Can be found through this very nice Center for Applied Linguistics Search Page.
Good luck hunting!
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