Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why is our home schooling program so Western? Part III

Beyond the issue of availability of good materials, there are some other reasons why we ultimately switched gears and chose French over Chinese.

First, there's the issue of cognitive retention. In comparison with French and other Indoeuropean languages, Chinese presents two disadvantages. One is its writing system. Mastering the thousands of Chinese characters required for basic literacy demands hours of daily practice. I've seen first hand how a short hiatus can result in massive forgetting. One simply cannot learn to read anything of substance in Chinese without a long-term commitement to significant daily practice. Another is its vocabulary. Chinese words are especially challenging for English speakers to remember because they bear no resemblance to English words.

So if your (or your child's) goal is to learn a language spoken by billions that may someday become a job-opportunity-expanding lingua franca, or a language whose pronunciation, vocabulary, and written form  (though not so much its morpho-syntax) differs greatly from English, and you can commit to the hours, days, and years of instruction (or don't care about learning the written form of the language), Chinese is just the ticket. But if your goal is fast mastery and easy retention of a spoken and written language, you're better of with one that uses an alphabet and whose words bear some resemblance to English words.

Which brings us to French--the original lingua franca. Like other Indoeuropean languages, it shares not only our basic writing system, but also tons of cognates (glace-glacier; sympathique-sympathetic; regarder-regard; to name just a few my daughter has recently observed). This means that English-speaking French learners are immersed in mnemonic devises. The effect of these cognates goes in the other direction as well: learning a Romance language like French enhances one's acquisition of many of the more sophisticated elements of English vocabulary. Cognates aside, French difers from English along the more linguistically interesting dimension of morpho-syntax, arguably at least as much as Chinese does. It therefore presents a nice combination of (1) mutual reinforcement with English vocabulary and an easily-mastered writing system, and (2) morpho-syntactic challenge and a window into some of the morpho-syntactic variability of the world's languages.

The mutual reinforcement of retention and enrichment also argues (in the Western world) for the Western cannon. The myths, fables, and histories that a native English speaker is most likely to remember are the ones that are alluded to or depicted throughout English-language literature and in much of the art that one encounters in our major art museums. As core knowledge avocate E. D. Hirsch has argued, knowing these classic tales and histories also enriches one's understanding of English-language texts, even at the level of basic comprehension. Just a few days ago a New York Times Op-Ed piece referenced an ancient Babylonian king in an allusion that would resonate with any child who has read Story of the World, Volume I. Familiarity with the best-known ancient civilizations--from China to Mesopotamia to Rome--is also both enriched by, an enriching of, one's visits to the many ancient civilization wings at museums around the country.

7 comments:

bky said...

Do you have any familiarity with curricula for (homeschool) teaching spanish to young kids? I have a decent reading knowledge of spanish and did okay with my older son in homeschool, but we never had a good curriculum. We started with Rosetta Stone until I realized that, to be brief, it was going nowhere. We ended up using a halfway good book that was designed for adult learners who were reviewing spanish they were supposed to already know. That won't work with an 8-year old. Do you know of anything comparable to the Capretz (sic?) method that you are using for French?

By the way, I remember when I was a kid the local PBS station ran the TV series French in Action. I didn't learn French but I was fascinated by the young lady.

Katharine Beals said...

Bky, Unfortuntely I don't. I agree that Rosetta Stone is not the answer. Have you checked out kid-oriente Spanish TV shows as a supplement?

Anonymous said...

On this blog, where we are not in general big fans of the "progressive" approach to education, I think we can still say that children need to work from the familiar to the not-so-familiar in order to fully grasp what they're learning. On those grounds, I don't think you need to justify the choice of a curriculum that starts with and/or emphasizes Western history/language/art. You're giving your daughter a solid platform from which to explore other cultures/histories.

Jen said...

My son studied French throughout school, with good to great teachers from 7th grade on (sketchier before that). His French is excellent and he's minoring in it in college.

Now he's also taking Korean. The pace of the class seems to be pretty fast -- considering the amount of memorizing that needs to go along with it. But, since he already has a second language and since learning that second language made many aspects of grammar clearer to him, he seems to be picking it up quickly.

Just last night he was telling us about the aspects of Korean that are unique to Korean vs. those that are similar to or identical with Chinese.

It seems that if he were interested in doing so, adding Chinese after he completes Korean would be easier, just like adding Korean after French was easier (or maybe I mean more efficient?)

Katharine Beals said...

Bky,
Glen just linked to a Spanish equivalent to FIA on the comment thread here:
http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2011/11/why-we-switched-from-chinese-to-spanish.html

Hainish said...

Katharine, I remember reading that one method for westerners to learn Japanese is to first memorize the written characters (kanji?) and then, once they can read the language for meaning, learn the sounds that go with each character.

I'm assuming that Chinese uses the same character set (or at least works the same way), but I'm not familiar with either language.

If so, perhaps your daughter can simply work on translating the characters for meaning. She will have the option of fully learning the language when she chooses, but doing it this way, even at a "lite" pace, she could maybe read some basic children's books.

Hainish said...

Katharine, I remember reading that one method for westerners to learn Japanese is to first memorize the written characters (kanji?) and then, once they can read the language for meaning, learn the sounds that go with each character.

I'm assuming that Chinese uses the same character set (or at least works the same way), but I'm not familiar with either language.

If so, perhaps your daughter can simply work on translating the characters for meaning. She will have the option of fully learning the language when she chooses, but doing it this way, even at a "lite" pace, she could maybe read some basic children's books.