Sunday, September 27, 2009

Types of Language Learners

Individuals can be either sequential or simultaneous language learners. The purpose of this blog is to describe the differences between sequential and simultaneous language learners.

Sequential Language Learners
Sequential language learners are those individuals that learn one language first and second or more languages after the first language have been established (usually after age three). An example of a sequential language learner is a child that learns Spanish at home as an infant and learns English once he/she goes off to school. Individuals that move to a new country and learn a new language are also sequential language learners.

Simultaneous Language Learners
Simultaneous language learners are those individuals that learned 2 or more languages at the same time. Simultaneous language learners are usually those individuals that grew up with 2 or more languages at home. This process occurs during infancy while the child is learning language for the first time. Most of the time, these children have at least one parent that speaks more than one language and/or lives in a community where more than one language is spoken. For example, the child has a nanny that speaks a different language with him or her.

Which learning type is best?
Young children can learn multiple languages easily because their brains are wired to do so. Young children’s brains are forming and characterized by plasticity that makes learning easier. Within ages 0 to 3 most children learn the basics of the language or languages present in their environment. At age 3, most children are able to communicate successfully in the language or languages used at home. After age 3, children continue to learn a language, but it is more about learning new vocabulary, expanding the complexity of their sentences and ideas and improving the pronunciation of sounds and words. Since the brain is open to acquire languages at an early age, simultaneous language learning is ideal.

This does not mean that learning languages in a sequential manner is not a good idea. Preschool and school age children continue to develop their brains, and they can easily learn a second language as well. Their brains continue to show high degrees of plasticity, which allows them to learn easily. The best example of sequential language learners is children that attend a second language immersion program where they learn a new language. In these immersion programs, typically all the school activities take place in the second language that the children are learning. The children are exposed to the new language all day while at school. When the children go home, they continue to speak the language spoken at home and/or the community. These children are usually successful at learning a second language because they are exposed to that language a significant amount of time each day. They are also successful because they are learning the new language the same way they learned the first language, through everyday meaningful activities.

Adults, on the other hand, do not have the same brain plasticity that children do. This makes learning a second language a harder task. In Spanish, there is a popular saying that refers to this issue, “Loro Viejo no aprende a hablar”/ “An old parrot does not learn to talk”. Although this saying is not 100% true, it is harder for adults to learn a second language because their brains do not have the plasticity and flexibility to do so. For instance, adult brains cannot perceive foreign language sounds not present in their language as easy as the brains of children can.

Either way of language learning, sequential or simultaneous, takes a strong commitment in order to be successful in the endeavor of raising bilingual children. It also takes having the desire and the interest to learn a new language on the part of the learner. Parents that make the commitment to teach their children more than one language and stick to this commitment are giving their children a cultural and linguistic gift that will probably open unimaginable opportunities in the future for their children. I can assure you, all the hard work and effort will be worth it at the end!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Introduction to my blog

I am starting this blog today in order to share my experiences as a bilingual individual and as a bilingual speech pathologist. I would like to learn about other people's experiences and help parents with questions regarding strategies to help their children be bilingual or multilingual. I am looking forward to having people share their experiences learning a second language as well.

First, I would like to share some information about myself.

My name is Jeanette Dorf. I am fluent in English and Spanish. I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and moved with my parents at the age of two to Colombia, South America. According to my parents' recollection, I was beginning to speak English when we first moved to Colombia. My parents had the best intentions to continue using English when speaking to me once we moved to Colombia. After some time they became concerned because they could not understand what I was saying. All they knew was that what I was saying did not sound like English or Spanish. They were afraid I was getting "confused" learning both languages and decided to use only Spanish, the official language in Colombia. Their rationale was that was the language I was going to be using in School... This is the same story I frequently hear from parents that want to teach their young children a second language.

My parents continued to use English when speaking among themselves and when having "adult" conversations that we, the kids, were not supposed to understand. My paternal grandparents also spoke English at their home because my grandmother was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she always spoke English in her home. My maternal grandparents spoke Yiddish among themselves.

As a "good" child I always thought that when adults spoke English, I was not supposed to know what they were saying, and I did not make any efforts to understand their conversations. I remember retreating inside my world and not paying attention to what they were saying. I was surprised to learn a few years ago that my brother who is bright and 8 years younger did the contrary. Instead of retreating, he made all the effort to understand what the adults were saying. Guess what???? He learned English from listening to them, and I did not!!! His English was so good that he could go to graduate school in the United States and get a PhD without every putting a foot in a ESL classroom. Even though I had English courses at school and traveled to the United States, I had a blockage when it came to learning English.

When I graduated from high school, I decided that I needed to conquer this fear. It had become a limiting issue for me. I was not accepted in Journalism school in Colombia because of my poor English skills. Additionally, I was probably the only person traveling across the world with an American Passport and unable to speak English!!! In 1977, I went in a school trip to Europe and Israel. We were getting ready to board an EL-AL flight from Paris to Tel-Aviv. Even 32 years ago Israel already had strict security measures when passengers were flying to Israel. As we were getting ready to board the plane, I showed my American passport to the official (he was an Israeli). The Israeli official started talking to me in English, and I was unable to respond to him. All I remember is watching all these security guards around me with their guns pointing at me. They thought I was a terrorist!!! Thank God that the teacher that was with us could explain to the official what my situation was, and I was able to board the plane.

After not been accepted to Journalism school in Colombia, I decided that I had to learn English. I spent 9 months immerse at the English Language Institute at University of Florida. What was funny about it is that most of my classmates spoke Spanish and practicing English was not easy during school. However, I lived at the dorm on campus. I made sure that after classes, I was only surrounded with English speaking people. In 9 months, I could start taking college credits at the local Community College and after 2 years, I was admitted to the Speech Pathology and Audiology program at University of Florida and later to the Communication Disorders graduate school program at University of Texas at Austin.

It was not easy. Actually, I do not know how I did it. Many of my professors kept saying that I was not going to succeed in graduate school and that I was not going to be a successful Speech Pathologist because of my foreign accent and my writing skills. Were they wrong!!!! Not only did I pick a highly demanded profession, but the fact that I am bilingual and speak Spanish makes me highly marketable in the U.S today.

My experience also helped me get a very interesting perspective on how it is for people with communication disorders. Although not the same, it is hard and frustrating when you are trying to communicate in a second language. People frequently talk to you slowly and loudly, which also happens to people with communication disorders. I also noticed I would use avoidance strategies similar to the ones used by individuals that stutter. For instance, I would avoid using a word that I had difficulty pronouncing. I remember going to Mac Donald’s and requesting “Diet Pepsi” because I could not pronounce “Tab”. Then the person taking my order would say, “We do not have Diet Pepsi” but we have Tab. I would then say that is fine (what I really wanted was Tab in the first place!!!). I got what I wanted, and I did not need to be embarrassed by an annoyed attendant that did not understand what I was saying. My experience learning English taught me a valuable lesson for my professional life.

I think that becoming bilingual molded the person I am today. Separately, from shaping my professional life, being able to speak English helped me meet my husband. We met in a popular matching website while I was in Colombia, and he was in the U.S over 10 years ago.
He never thought he would find his wife in Colombia. He understands some Spanish, but he does not speak it. After 9 years of marriage, I believe he is the best gift being bilingual has brought to my life.

I want to continue writing blogs about different experiences and anecdotes related to bilingual issues. I also welcome people to write about their experiences and anecdotes. I would love to read funny stories! I also will be writing about topics related to language development and how to facilitate teaching children more than one language. Finally, I want to give people reading this blog the perspective of a bilingual speech pathologist. To know more than one language is probably one of the best gifts a person can receive.