Teaching a Foreign Language Through Story By Lori Ries

My youngest daughter, Jennifer, was five years old when she invented her own country. Her country was named New Zeenland. Jennifer, and a friend the same age, developed a language for their country called “Zeenish.” The language was what they spoke together. New Zeenland seemed a paradise in our home, except at dinner time when chicken was served.

Chicken was New Zeenland’s national bird.

The world my daughter created was real to her. Zeenish was interestingly natural to Jennifer, and understood by those inhabiting this imaginary place. The country of New Zeenland lasted into the 2rd grade. As long as New Zeenland existed, stories of Zeenish life developed.

Children are fascinated by and drawn to both stories and language. Children love to play and to be entertained, to explore where their curiosity leads them, and to discover the unknown. Children also enjoy being challenged, expanding their knowledge, and seeing the validation in their growth. I saw this for myself. If my daughter could create a world with a language that stood long on its own, it seemed probable that children could learn the world’s existing languages through stories simply created for that purpose.

In 1998, I witnessed an amazing truth about children and their natural ability for learning languages. We were sent to Heidelberg, Germany, for a summer when my husband received a business assignment from his company. Our flat in Leimen was owned by a lovely couple. As a child, their daughter had learned to speak multiple languages. German, English, French, and Hungarian. She was fluent in all of them. In city parks, I realized other children also spoke multiple languages. Europe is made up of many countries and some have their own language. Learning to be multi-lingual, I discovered, is normal in that part of the world. It didn’t surprise me how quickly my children picked up German words in Germany and French words in France. Returning to the US, my middle child wanted to learn French and Spanish, and my eldest wanted to learn German. My youngest now speaks some Mandarin Chinese and Finnish, and is currently learning Vietnamese. My middle child, now an adult, lives in South America where my five granddaughters are learning Spanish. My son-in-law recently shared that Emma, their 5-year-old, said “adiós” as a new friend left the park, and then ran back proudly to her father saying, “Dad, I’m trying to talk just like a Spanish kid!”

Simple vocabulary can teach any language through a story and repetition. As children connect to a character’s world, they connect to shared words. Colors, numbers, clothing, body part names, foods, animals, parts of a home, names for family relationships, and simple conversation can be learned in literary play.

My grandchildren are learning Spanish, and, through writing books that teach Spanish, so am I. This way when we meet, we can talk together in a new language. I hope to surprise them! Combining story with language is fun for any age.

Lori Ries is the author of the Step into Spanish Series (Señor Picante is My Red Fish and Tater Tot is My Fat Cat), and upcoming releases Beware! Be Scared!, The Witches Ball, and Charlie & Emmet – Surgery Day.

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