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Monday, June 27, 2011

Bilingual Babies by Whistlefritz.com

 So, I'm a Spanish teacher--most of you knew that, I think--and I'm pretty passionate about pushing foreign language teaching at a young age.  I'm so passionate, in fact, that when I did student teaching, I opted out of the high school/middle school level and focused completely on learning how to teach Spanish to elementary students.  I worked with kids in 2nd-5th grades.  My cooperating teacher was amazing and I learned how to teach kids Spanish using ONLY SPANISH and eliciting responses completely in Spanish from them.  What I discovered through this amazing semester of trial-by-fire teaching was that it is hard work but it's completely possible to never use English in the classroom and for your students to successfully learn that way.  And successful doesn't begin to describe how well kids learn when taught this way...they excel at a foreign language through the immersion method.  I know, I know, you think that's crazy.  I get that all the time from parents.  "How do you expect my kids to understand you if you won't speak English?" so I've taken to giving them a demonstration so that they'll experience what their kids go through in my class for themselves.  I introduce myself and some random facts about me only using Spanish and when I quiz the parents afterwards, they understood the important parts of what I was trying to communicate.  After three years of teaching elementary Spanish and teaching kids in all grades except 1st and 6th, I switched to MS/HS for a year and now I teach high school. 

So why immersion?  The thing is, no one translated your first language for you.  You learned it through the special way people talked to you as a baby (the official term for which is "motherese"--it's the exaggerated tones, simple speech, and the repetition we use with our babies before they can speak), through context, through visual aids, through repetition.  You also learned it by necessity.  Mama, Dada, No, milk, etc. were all words that helped streamline your life and make things easier for you.  So, why not mimic this scenario in as much as possible when learning/teaching a second language?  Why do people stick stalwartly to archaic methods of translation and even rote memorization?  Why not just use the language, focusing on communication rather than grammar and vocabulary lists?  I mean, God created us to learn our first language this way, and He obviously knew what He was doing.  

So, anyway, I'm passionate about Spanish and I'm passionate about teaching it to young children (although, I'm currently a high school teacher--which I also love), and I'm also passionate about using immersion as the best practice for teaching the target language.   All this and I haven't really taken the time to teach Bunny Spanish.  Well, that's not true.  I did work on Spanish before she knew English.  Maybe 10% of my first speech to her was in Spanish, especially when I started really working hard on teaching her English.  But then she started speaking English and I didn't want to confuse her.  I was so excited at hearing the English that Spanish was put aside and then I felt I'd lost our momentum and I didn't know how to pick it back up and put it in our conversations--especially once she became so fluent in English.  I think that part of the reasons that my home-school Spanish lessons fizzle out quickly is because I spend all morning teaching Spanish at work and sometimes I just don't feel like taking my work home with me.  Sometimes, I just want to relax and use my first language--English--with my daughter because, though I'm fluent in Spanish, I'm so much more comfortable with English and I can communicate best in my mother-tongue.

But then, I discovered Whistlefritz.com.  (cue the Hallelujah chorus)

 I read on their website that they offer immersion DVDs for teaching children Spanish, I had to see it for myself.  I was skeptical, I must admit, because many times places say that they teach Spanish, but they do so with translation--English to Spanish--which really just teaches kids to take an extra step rather than actually thinking in the target language (the target language being Spanish in this case).  So, I asked them to send me one of their DVDs, and after watching it only once, I was sold.  The DVD is amazing! It uses all the best practices for teaching a foreign language in a fun, interactive, and colorful presentation of vocabulary in context.  The kids do not learn isolated words one by one, they simply listen to the story and conversation as the narrator introduces them to different animals through puppetry and animation.  Just because I was hooked, though, didn't mean my daughter would like it.  The proof would be in how she reacted to the DVD.  I was afraid she would hear language that she wasn't familiar with and lose interest, but I was wrong.  She was glued to the set, smiling and laughing at the appropriate times and frowning when the narrator asked things like "El perro dice cuac?" (Does the dog say quack?).  She GOT it! So, I proceeded to let her watch it FOUR TIMES that day.  I know, I know, that's a lot of TV and I try not to let her watch too much TV but in order for the Spanish to compete with the English, you've got to bring the ratio up a bit, you know? 
 (Bunny watching her Los Animales DVD  from Whistlefritz in the car)

Anyway, in our play time the next day I watched her as she talked with her dollies and stuffed animals and I heard her saying something I couldn't quite make out.  I listened for awhile and to my amazement she was was saying, "¡Hola, niños!"  So, encouraged by the success of the DVD, I took the bull by the horns and started speaking to her bilingually as well.  We  talked about all the fruits and veggies in her toy refrigerator, and we talked about animals, and body parts.  I guess the mental block about teaching her Spanish was really just that, mental, because it was so easy! Things that I'd worked with her on before she started speaking English fluently came back to her and she started counting to cinco in Spanish and since she's currently a parrot anyway, it was so easy for her to repeat the words that I was teaching her.

A couple days later, after continued and repeated use of the DVD from Whistlefritz.com, she made a joke--a joke she keeps repeating over and over to us because it was greeted with such excitement from Mommy and Daddy.  "Gato di 'woof'." she said. 
     "No, honey, el gato dice 'miau'."
      "Gato say 'woof'." she says again, laughing this time. 

And she's started counting in Spanish too! Out of the blue, today, she looked at me with a twinkle in her eye and said, "Uno, dos, tres..." and I smiled and finished for her and then she jumped in, "...ocho, nueve..."

So, I will be putting up a more official review of Whistlefritz.com very soon in more simple terms, but today, I just wanted to share with you my personal story and some background history of why foreign language learning in the elementary years is so important to me.  In the meantime, you can check them out at their website, or their facebook page and see some of the magic for yourself!

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