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The power of language


A lifetime ago, my older brother and I spent six months together traveling overseas. It was the adventure of all adventures.

One of the things I remember most clearly was trying to communicate with people from Norway to Africa and all points in between. The two of us shared a pathetic smattering of French and passable Spanish. It was greatly appreciated -- and embarrassing -- that we encountered English nearly everywhere we went.

But imagine our dismay when one evening we found ourselves in a remote village in what was then Yugoslavia and suddenly, all of the lights in the entire town went out. We stood stock still in the darkness, wondering what to do. Slowly, the warm glow of candles and lanterns emerged from the shops and houses.

Dead batteries filled our only flashlight, so the immediate task was to secure a light source. With no knowledge of the language, my brother hastily drew a picture of a candle on a scrap of paper. We went from shop to shop trying to make our needs understood. People were consistently pleasant and politely amused, but we failed miserably. I'll be honest -- he's no artist.

Finally, much to his frustration, I took a turn drawing the candle. (I certainly don't consider myself an accomplished artist but I do dabble a bit.) Returning to the first shop, I handed the clerk my drawing. A broad smile covered his face and he immediately reached for a box of candles. We all shared a good laugh over our ineptitude. Through gestures and a gracious attitude, he invited us to stay for tea. Quite a few drawings later, we learned that due to limited power and even more limited economic resources, the electricity for the entire village was simply turned off every night.

I learned a very important lesson that night -- common language is a crucial bridge for understanding cultural differences. And when we understand other cultures, we discover that people of the world are all very much alike. And that understanding can only lead to improved global relations.

Karen Elfers, a local French teacher and one of the founders of the Humboldt Language Academy, put it this way: "You're reaching out to people when you attempt another's language, it's a way to connect. And isn't connection what it's all about?"

Another advantage of early acquisition of a second language is the impact it has on a child's overall development. Eureka High German teacher Andrea Eitel Bird -- who with Elfers and HSU German professor Kay La Bahn founded the academy -- explained: "I believe that learning another language not only opens doors for children but it improves critical thinking skills and helps build self-esteem. I have often observed the latter in my 6!/2 year-old daughter, who is being raised bilingually. Every time a friend or classmate asks her how to say a certain word in German she comes home beaming."

Ultimately, healthy self-esteem and critical thinking skills can take a child anywhere he or she wants to go. Now, add mastery of a second language and personal and professional opportunities in the international community increase significantly.

We are very fortunate to have the Humboldt Language Academy available for children in our community. Held at the HSU campus in the University Annex, students 8 through 11 years of age have their choice of attending Saturday morning classes in either French, German, Italian, Japanese or Spanish.

One of most appealing features of this program is the way in which the children are taught. Material is presented through "communication-based instruction." Elfers explained the success of this approach: "The purpose of language is communication. Children in this age group are at a place in their development when they are really open to the ideas of others. They're not afraid yet. They don't look at differences as a negative. The goal of this approach is comprehension. Children understand everything the teacher is doing. Using pictures, action, props, games and songs, meaning is communicated to the students. This approach is interactive, it's entertaining and it's a lot of fun."

I had the opportunity to sit in on a German lesson from an academy instructor and, believe me, this is not the way I learned Spanish as a kid! Where were the drills? The memorized dialogues? Why weren't we conjugating a verb or two? No, instead I found myself smiling, laughing with the other students. We were instantly pulled into the lesson, eager to understand what our teacher was communicating. The beauty of it was that she never said one word in English and yet I found myself understanding what she was saying. It was a relaxed, happy, enthusiastic and challenging experience. And it certainly was fun.

If you'd like to see what the academy has to offer, mark Feb. 22 on your calendar. The instructors invite you and your children to "try five languages for free." That's right, between 10 and 11:15 a.m. at the University Annex (14th and C sts.) you can experience Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Japanese in 10 minute mini-lessons. I'd be very surprised if you and your children don't walk out feeling energized and hungry for more.

Why not give your child the opportunity to explore another language? It seems as though nothing but good can come of it.

For more information on the Humboldt Language Academy or to register for the spring session beginning March 1, call the HSU Office of Extended Education at 826-3731 or see the website.



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