by Cynthia Storrs
Few missionaries forget the day they arrive on the field. It generally ranks right up there with The First Kiss, The Day Kennedy Was Shot or The Truth about Santa.
Few missionaries forget the day they arrive on the field. It generally ranks right up there with The First Kiss, The Day Kennedy Was Shot, or The Truth about Santa.
Equally acessible in the memory bank of many missionaries is The First Day of Language Study. Regardless of all that mission agencies do to prepare a fledgling missionary, the first encounter with a new language often arrives like a rabbit punch, even when one has been forwarned and forarmed.
And what about the missionary kids, our MKs? Having had little or no preparation, many MKs sail blithely off to preschool, and after some initial noticable discomfort, appear to acquire the foreign language as if by osmosis. No problem! Or so it seems.
Sometimes there are no problems; sometimes problems surface later. And sometimes the scope of these problems is such that the family decides it can no longer stay on the field. What is particularly unfortunate is that some of the problems might have been avoided had attention been paid to certain details from the start.
As a missionary working in MK education, I am totally committed to second language acquisition and cultural adaptation for the entire missionary family. Successful linguistic and cultural adaptation can have a significant influence not only on the quality of ministry, but also on the quality of life overseas. Having worked in a foreign language church-planting project, and having reared two small children overseas in a foreign language, I am also aware of the demands language and culture acquisition make on parents and their children.
MK bilingualism/biculturalism is not only a worthy goal, but one with great benefits compared to a monolingual education that a child might receive by staying in the United States. But it is also a process that must be undertaken with parental and community support.
WHAT’S THE BEST METHOD?
One of the first questions about MK language learning is methodology: What is the best way for MKs to learn a foreign language? This question can be answered in part by two other questions: For what purpose is the child learning the new language? and, How old his the child? If the child is learning the language only for conversational purposes, his training is much less complicated, and simple exposure and interactoin in social situations may suffice. If the child will be expected to perform on an academic level with his peers, the demands are much greater and his training must reflect this.
Happily, age is rarely a barrier to language learning. One often hears that after a certain age, we cannot learn a foreign language. This is simply not true. There is much research to indicate that after the age of about 10 to 12, the chances of achieving a native accent are diminished, but learning a language involves more than just learning an accent. There are advantages and challenges for language learners at any stage of life.
As to specific methodology, there are many schools of thought and little agreement. Some general principles would probably be more helpful than recommending a particular school of thought. Much research indicates that learning a second language has many similarities with learning a first language. It is believed that the acquisition of our first language is guided by an innate language ability, a sort of "mind-map" that facilitates language learning. We can infer a number of principles from this one: one is that the acquisition of our first language will transfor to and help in the acquisition of a second one. Therefore, it is imperative that parents of MKs not neglect their mother tongue.
Missionaries often debate whether the second language (L2) should be used in the home. Certainly, the L2 should be used when other L2 speakers are present, out of respect for one’s guests. Otherwise, missionaries should be encouraged to do all they can to foster the native language, for two reasons: First, a child’s L2 ability will rarely exceed his L1 ability; and second, the home environment may be the MKs only source of learning the mother tongue. A strong mother tongue base will help in L2 aquisition.
Another question often raised about L2 methodology concerns informal vs formal acquisition. Is it of more value to memorize verbs or to let your child pass the morning wandering in the market? If he has to pass a test on the verb table, obviously he has to memorize it. But for general acquisition, both children and adults may learn more and learn it faster chatting their way through the market place, because it will involve them in a task that is both useful and low-stress.
One axiom of language acquisition is to learn a little, but use it a lot (Larson, 1996). This is what ahppens when we put young children in an L2 nursery school, where they cannot say much, but usually say it often! The same effect can be realized for older children through sports or music. MKs (and their parents) need to have social times, informal language experiences, with little pressure put upon them, to test what they have learned in more formal environments. Formal schooling often imparts much knowledge, with little opportunity to use it.
ATTITUDE: THE CRITICAL FACTOR
Regardless of the specific methodology, a critical factor—some would say the critical factor—in L2 acquisition is attitude. For an MK, this involves not only his personal attitude but the attitude of his parents and of the L2 speakers around him. I recall sympathizing with my children about their verb tables and (wrongly) saying something like, "Yes, I hate these stupid verb conjugations, too…" By saying that, I was in effect communicating a negative attitude toward the second langauge and the people who spoke it.
Equally important is the attitude of L2 speakers toward the MK. A language learner must want to accept, identify with and imitate the L2 speakers and their language, but the L2 speakers must also want to accept the L2 learner. Otherwise, for example, social situations that could provide informal language practice will not occur. The missionary family must do everything possible to make friends with L2 speakers, and encourage L2 friendships for their children. At the elementary level, whole-class birthday parties are a great way to develop social networks. At the teen level, offering your home for a cookout or coaching a baseball team would encourage language practice and foster longer-term relationships.
It is also advisable to try to help a child "fit in" in a tangible way, with similar clothing, school items and so on, to deemphasize cultural differences. The less an MK is regarded as an outsider, the more likely he or she is to be taken into the L2 "inner circle."
On the other hand, parents of MKs should resist the notion of "going native" by denying or ignoring a child’s linguistic and cultural heritage. Going native may result in the MK facing a loss of identity, something most lanugage learners experience naturally to a certain extent. Loss of identity can result in feelings of anger and resentment toward the target culture. If children perceive the L2 and its culture as a threat to their own cultural identity, they will reject the second culture in an effort to preserve their own identity. As language is the salient manifestation of a culture, this rejection will probably result in poor L2 learning.
UNDERSTANDING AND ACHIEVING BILIGUALISM
We often hear that a certain MK is bilingual, but what exactly does that mean? A balanced bilingual child is one who has age-appropriate abilities in both languages (see Baker). Parents should not expect an MK to be equally fluent in both languages. Language acquisition is a function of many variables, two being effort and time. The problem is, there just are not enough hours in the day for a person to achieve equal fluency in two languages. Obviously, a child who spends 16 hours a day hearing and interacing in one language will generally have a greater knowledge of that language than a child who has less exposure.
Bilingualism does, of course, give a child some academic advantanges over those who are monolingual. Research indicates that there are "transfers" made between languages—that knowledge required in one language will transfer to knowledge and be expressed as skills in another language. This transfer of knowledge and skills is known as "metacognition," and in some tests metacognition in bilingual children has resulted in IQ scores which surpass those of monlingual children in fluency, flexibility of thought, originality, abstract thinking, and problem solving (Cummins 1989).
However, achieving such advantages will generally require some kind of parental and academic support. As mentioned, a distinction can be made in this regard between children who study L2 for solely conversational purposes vs. those who acquire L2 for academic purposes. A 4- to 6-year-old child who needs to be conversant in L2 can probably achieve a "basic interpersonal communication skill" (BICS) level analogous to a monolingual child of his same age (see Baker), with one to two years of social interaction. However, it will take this same child approximately five to seven years to achieive a "cognittive academic language proficiency (CALP) analogous to a monolingual child of his age—a level which would be necessary to successfully complete studies in the L2.
Many teachers lacking experience with bilingual children are unaware of this distinction. They may feel that the young MK is prepared for further education, judging only on the BICS level, when in truth the child will be in need of extra help for a couple of years or more. Parents need to be aware of this discrepency, and to realize that they are probably not well-placed to bridge the gap; this is where an L2 native speaker can be invaluable in helping an MK deal with things like pronunciation, idomatic expressions and various ways o solving language problems. For a child at the elementary level, an L2 high school student is probably more than competent to help in this way. For an older child, professional help would probably be better.
Parents of older children should evaluate each child on an individual basis before starting that child in an L2 situation. The years necessary for a child older than 12 to catch up academically (five to seven years for CALP) may not allow him to successfully complete high school. Meanwhile, the child would possibly suffer emotionally and socially from the tremendous L2 dmands made on him.
If an MK begins L2 in the lower elementary years, parents should seriously consider repeating a grade in the L2, to allow the child to catch up linguistically. Fortunately, in most other countries, repeating a greade is not frowned upon as it is in the United States. Indeed, it is often the norm.
Again, there are great advantages to a bilingual education, but parents must realize it comes with certain demands on the entire family. If both parents are not willing to make the adjustments necessary to help a child through a biliingual education, it will probably not be a successful or happy option for the MK.
THE GOAL: BILINGUAL AND BICULTURAL
Lastly, it is important to realize that our goal as missionaries and MKs is to be not only bilingual, but also bicultural. Indeed, many experts feel that the two cannot be separated. MKs need to learn about their "new" holidays and traditions, but not at the expense of their own native ones. Both are important, giving roots in their home and culture and wings to fly in their new one. This can be achieved in many ways without burdening the MK with additional studies: family reading times, including poetry, folk tales, even comic books; folk songs and pop music; stamp and coin collections; national sports; celebrating both U.S. and target culture holidays; thermometers, scales and cookbooks in both languages.
English reading and writing skills should be worked on continuously throughout elementary and high school years, but without being burdensome to the MK. Writing skills can be developed through diaries and letters to family members. Reading in both languages, including Bible studies should be encouraged as a family hobby. The many correspondence courses available for high schoolers can help them develop English skills. The MK needs to feel comfortable in both worlds, and the language and vocabulary associated with each one is important in making a person truly bicultural.
Although my daughter was only four years old at the time, she remembers her First Day of Language Study quite distinctly. It was a day that began with much excitement and ended with many tears. But she looks back on that memory now and smiles. When asked if all the "trauma," the extra studies, the lists of spelling words in two languages, were worth it, she responds very positively.
"Being bilingual gave me a much broader perspective on the world, " she says.
"So, was it worth it?"
From a California MK, that’s about as good as it gets!
On Second Language Acquisition
Gardner, R. 1985. Social Psychology and Second Language Learning: The Role of Attitudes and Motivation. London: Edward Arnold.
Krashen, S. 1982. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquistion. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, Inc.
Shumann, J. 1986. "Research on the Acculturation Model for Second Language Acquisition," Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 7, No. 5, pp. 379-392.
Baker, C. 1995. Foundations of Bilingual Education and Biculturalism. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, Ltd.
Baker, C. 1995. A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, Ltd.
Cummins, J. 1989. "Language and Literacy Acquisition in Bilingual Contexts," Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 17-31.
Larson, D. 1996. Learning a Language Again: First Steps in the Barefoot Approach, Version 1. Fresno, Calif.: Link Care Center.
Cynthia Storrs lectures in Europe with S.H.A.R.E. (Services, Helps and Alternative Resources in Education), an educational consulting group for missionaries, focusing on MKs and second language issues. Coordinator of women’s ministries for Greater Europe Mission, Europe, Cynthia and her husband, Don work in Kandern-Holzen, Germany. This article was first published in INTERACT, the magazine of Interaction.
EMQ, Vol. 34, No. 1. Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.