Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Guest Contributor: Silvia Cachia

The following post is a contribution by Silvia Cachia, whose blogs Homeschooling in a Bilingual Home and Charlotte Mason en Español, are a wealth of information on bilingual homeschooling and the Charlotte Mason method. Silvia is raising her two beautiful daughters in Spanish, knowing that teaching them in their native language will only strengthen their mastery of another. Silvia is currently taking a sabbatical from her blogging, but both remain available for you to explore and reference...

When I started blogging and had to decide on a title, HOMESCHOOLING IN A BILINGUAL HOME was the one which best described what I had embarked to do with my girls. Although I have written about our family, beliefs, our thoughts about curriculum, our influences and principles that we hold for the girls’ education, I do not think I have talked much about how our bilingualism determines, shapes, enriches and challenges our homeschooling.

I have read many books that deal with bilingualism since my days at the university and teaching, but my most valuable observations are the informal ones I've had of children and people (students, friends, family members) who speak Spanish and English in varying degrees in their day to day life; like my friends who are immigrants or have another language and culture in their life. The years I’ve spent raising my daughters in a family with two active languages, English and Spanish, and with Italian and Maltese, both spoken by my husband, have also provided me with some experiences and observations I'd like to share with you.

Often I believe we take bilingualism for granted at home. To me, there is no boast in speaking Spanish. I lived in Madrid for 27 years, and learned English when I was little. My listening and speaking skills were not very good, but coming to live and work in Texas took care of that fast, and dating a wonderful man with whom I had to speak in English took care of it even faster. My husband speaks three languages proficiently and he has conversational Spanish. We speak English at home with him, but I speak Spanish to the girls when I'm alone with them and sometimes a bit in public, but I try not to appear as impolite or rude. Once, around acquaintances, I addressed my girls in Spanish while at the food line and was scorned by someone who I don't believe meant to insult, but who felt threatened by someone speaking in an unknown language. I try not to take offense because being a first generation immigrant (despite the fact that I am and feel a citizen of this exceptional country), I'm very conscious of the effort we should all make to adjust and become part of our new embraced country. My husband feels this way, and our girls are not only Americans, but GRITS (Girls Raised In The South ;-)

Back to BILINGUALISM. We have all heard the “one parent, one language” saying. That is very true. If you can have that situation, children will normally learn both languages, their dominant language being the one they are surrounded by and which they practice more. But both languages will eventually be very well learned, especially if you homeschool, since sending them to school in just one language will drastically cut the exposure time to the second language. If parents both speak the minority language at home, and children go to schools in the dominant language, they have also a good chance of being bilingual. However, I've noticed that how much they can acquire or maintain both languages depends on how proficient and consistent the parents are or try to be in both languages.

It can be the case for those whose native language is other than English and live in the States, to feel like they are not qualified to teach their children at home. They think their accent and lack of knowledge in general on how to teach will not make it possible for them to educate their children successfully. Bear in mind that many mothers or parents born and raised in the States feel the same lack of ability to teach their children at home. We know that parents without a college degree can successfully homeschool their children, but many times not having the degree affects our self esteem and makes us believe we are not fit for the task.

In many cases like ours, neither my husband nor I knew that homeschooling even existed. Homeschooling is a relatively common thing for Americans, there have always been those who chose this, with a boom in the past years that is making this alternative as common as mainstream, especially in Texas where we live. For us, though, it was a progression of thought. First our child or children (if we had them as we wanted to) would be in a regular class so that they'd learn perfect English, then they'd be in a bilingual or dual class, so that they could learn English and maintain their Spanish that I planned to teach them as much as I could before they started school. By the time I was pregnant with my firstborn, they'd be homeschooled! It took us some time to believe that homeschooling is not something some weird parents who wanted to raise their children in a bubble chose to do.

Many families with only one language understand the advantages of learning a different one. Once we decided to homeschool I read many general books on how to do this. At the time I read some books based on Charlotte Mason and her own writings. I left those books aside for a while and when I started to blog I kept researching and learning more about her and knew that this was the type of homeschooling I wanted for my family. I read "When Children Love to Learn" and that became the compass that I've never veered away from. Charlotte Mason wrote about children learning another language (French) and in another post or somewhere in the Internet, I'm sure you can read about how she advised us to proceed with this. Actually, that's the way I'd like to introduce an additional language to my girls, because Spanish is not a foreign language we are learning, rather it is more of a second 'mother tongue'. For those families who don't have a person who can bring a different language to their children, I believe there are great resources to learn languages, therefore there is no reason to despair or believe we are at a disadvantage. As advantageous as languages can be, I do not agree that one needs to give formal lessons to young children, I don't think they'll remember. It was my case. My parents signed me up in an academy when I was in first grade, after school, to learn English, and the only things I remember is disliking having so much homework; of being called to speak up and then being embarrassed when the answer was wrong (which happened all the time); and that one day one of the girls in class came with her mouth and teeth stained with blue ink, because she had had some procedure done at the dentist! I remember, by contrast, that when we were filling in the blanks in a Police song in high school, how the motivation to learn and be able to sing the song we liked properly kept us working on the grammar and vocabulary.

When a language is learned from birth, it is processed differently than it is as a grown up. My daughters have been learning two languages, but the process for those is the same. And that's good! That means they won't have an accent in either language. However, their literacy development in those languages is not necessarily going to be very impressive unless they keep reading and writing in both languages in their future. If you ask ME, I’d rather have an accent but be able to read and write in English as I do in Spanish, than to have no accent but nothing interesting to say in either. And literacy and proficiency in a different language can be acquired at any age.

For all monolingual families who homeschool (monolingual sounds horrible, but I don't know of a different way to say it), if your children have a love for learning and you do too, it's very likely they will want to learn another language. So many moms are teaching their children German or French. Or children learn with a tutor when they have the interest to learn a different language. If they live in other countries they will learn the language spoken there while being homeschooled less traumatically than they will do in other settings. There is no need to panic if they don't speak three languages, practice five sports, or play ten instruments. Having awareness of other cultures and people sets the basis for learning a language when life requires it.

And in your homeschooling days, incorporating other languages through songs, friends, programs, classes, tutors, etc. will keep that door always open.

Sometimes the best way of learning a second or third language is to know your first language very well. The degree of literacy you posses in your mother tongue will transfer. You'll always push yourself to be as good in the language you are learning as you are in the language you know. I'm a reader and an aspiring writer in Spanish, once I learned English it was just as a natural transition to want to become that reader and writer in English. Thirteen years after I came to the States, I can proudly say I'm reading Great Expectations in the original, but I couldn't do so the first year.

Knowing advanced calculus might be impressive and important if your interests are on a career or field that requires it. Knowing many languages can help you in life, especially if you live in a country different than where you were born, or even in your own if there is a lot of people who speak other languages. And trust me, if you fall in love with someone you need to know another language to understand, you will learn that language in a record time! If you are a missionary in another place you'll learn too. My friend David Raif went to Guatemala not knowing Spanish, but now he can read, write, understand and speak it.

Whether you know a lot or little, practice and learn more. Use what you know, then pick an easy book in a different language, or with some words in another language, and read it to your children. Make friends with someone who speaks a different language, and ask her if she doesn't mind saying some phrases, words, or even reading books in her language to your children at play dates. And if you are in a co op with a mom who is a native in a different language, plan informal activities for the young or more formal and fun classes for the older ones. Reading books about other places, cultures, and books that are wholesome, will ignite children’s curiosity and most likely they'll want to learn more about that culture - language included. My daughters have had an on an off fascination with Asian cultures, especially China, and they have learned some words that they've seen in books and others by watching Kaylan on the computer. Cartoons (not in excess) are good motivators for children, but remember that no matter how good the CD, program, tape, book, etc. nothing is as good as a parent. If we are the curriculum, when it comes to a second language spoken by the parent that's even truer.

Thank you, Monica, for asking me for the interview. I've been entertaining the idea of writing a book for some time now, and it may be something I'll eventually do since I see there is an audience for this topics of bilingualism in the homeschooling home. So please, feel free to leave your comments and suggestions, I appreciate them very much.


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