Lately, though, I’ve been teaching nine and ten year old kids who know much more. I demonstrate the difference between “usually” and “sometimes”, instead of having to teach them the colors. The older kids give me something to work with and I take them through exercises, introducing new words and grammatical twists that stretch their English abilities.
From the beginning, I’ve always felt that as native-English speaker, it’s more worth-while for me to work with older kids who know some English already. The very young kids just go through simple memorization games and the Vietnamese teachers do a fine job of extending their short attention spans. When I work with these young kids, I’m an interesting novelty, but at the end of the class, they haven’t learned anything that they wouldn’t have picked up from their Vietnamese teacher.
With the older kids, I can truly make a difference because the Vietnamese teachers usually speak very basic English. It was often very difficult for me to ask them what lessons I should be doing. These teachers have no problem teaching their students what an alligator is, but they’re shaky on the finer points of English grammar. They know very few colloquial phrases.
The other American students don’t mind teaching the younger kids because they disagree with me that older kids benefit more. They point out that younger kids generally learn languages quickly and that it’s important to learn proper pronunciation early. These are valid points, but I still disagree.
Maybe my view is colored by my own experience learning Spanish. I had five years of Spanish lessons in elementary school, all taught by fluent Spanish-speakers. Yet by the time I was in sixth grade, I still didn’t know much beyond the colors and numbers. But when I got to seventh grade, the teacher began to systematically teach grammar and tenses. There were weekly vocabulary tests. By the end of middle school, I knew what I was doing and was prepared to become fluent by the end of high school. I wouldn’t have been any worse off if I’d started Spanish in seventh grade.
Because of this, I don’t put much stock in learning a language very early to “get ahead”. Young minds are good at internalizing new words, but they are not able to think abstractly or digest systematic lessons. For the same reason that we don’t teach algebra to seven-year-olds, we can’t teach them the future perfect tense.
It’s true that pronunciation is a major problem between Vietnamese and English. The small amount of Vietnamese that I know is almost entirely incomprehensible because the sounds are so alien. Likewise, the Vietnamese students have terrible pronunciation issues. Today I thought a group of students wanted to be called the “Sock” team, and I wrote down “Team Sock” on their side of the board. They laughed hysterically because they had actually tried to say “Shark” team. The teachers are usually unable to help them because their own accents are poor.
I think a native speaker can help older students more with pronunciation. Older children can rationalize. I can explain that “scissors” are pronounced “sizzers” because the “sc” in English is normally pronounced as an “s”. What little logic there is in the English language can be explained, and the older students can apply one example to many situations.
In the end, the instruction is only going to be valuable if the students are motivated. Millions of American students learn Spanish and other languages from competent teachers, but only a small minority attains proficiency, because Americans have little incentive to learn languages that they’ll hardly ever use. Vietnamese students, on the other hand, quickly realize that English is a major key to prosperity, as well as a window into the outside world. Like all children, they lose focus from time to time in class, but they’re not entirely checked out, like so many American students in Spanish classes.
I strongly believe that most of the kids in my classes will one day speak English, and I’ve enjoyed helping them get there—especially when they’re ready.