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Courage in Early Language Learners

Published: June 5, 2018

A Keyword-y Photo
That's me in the tree, a shy and serious preschooler.

When I was little, I went to a preschool where they taught in both English and French. We spoke English and Norwegian at home, where my grandmother usually gave me her undivided attention as a non-English-speaking caregiver. I was a shy and serious child, not used to playing with children my own age, and terrified of speaking aloud in class. The song, “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” would send me into a panic. Forgetting how to say, “Who me? Couldn’t be,” I’d only point at the next child, feeling guilty at knowing I had condemned one more innocent person to the nightmare of The Cookie Jar Trials.

I liked the French part of class, though, and vividly remember how much I enjoyed learning that the word serviette (napkin) was the same in French as it was in Norwegian. It was a world I suddenly felt I belonged in, where I could participate without having to know all the inside jokes everyone else seemed to know. This was the part of class where other kids seemed less certain about their participation, and suddenly I was the one who felt confident enough to raise my hand with the answer. I got compliments, even. Learning French in preschool was what gave me courage to come in to preschool at all.

As a person who now travels between our pre-K programs, elementary after-school programs, and Twin Cities day camps through Language Discovery, I think about the subject of courage a lot. We see it on those first days when, with lower lips trembling, small children step into the circle to play that first name game. We see it in parents as they carefully unwrap a child from their leg, give them a “nosey-nose,” and tell the child that all they have to do is give it a chance. We see it in teachers, who step outside of their comfort zones every day to accommodate the needs of a child in their class. We see it in school districts and other partners, who take leap of faith when contracting with us to come in and work with their families.

Knowing that courage comes in all different forms, we asked our teachers to tell us about the kind of courage they see in their classrooms. Teachers mentioned the power of effort and choice, of learning to build one’s own confidence up through self-talk, and of relying on others for both support and leadership through example.

Many of the teachers remarked specifically upon that first step into the immersion classroom as being the most daunting for our young language learners. It can be hard to walk away from the familiar and into the unknown: into a new language, new faces, new ways of doing things and new expectations. The first step is the hardest. After that, it’s one little step, followed by another, as far as the eye can see.

As an adult, one of the things I am most grateful for, from my own childhood, is having grown the ability to face new and unfamiliar situations. I am no longer the kid that cried for a week straight at preschool drop-off, though I still get butterflies in my stomach from time to time, as most of us do. That’s okay.

Watching young language learners find courage in themselves is one of the best parts of doing what we do. Through early immersion experiences, children learn how to face uncertainty by relying on their inner strengths and abilities. They learn how to read unfamiliar situations by using what they already know. They learn to how to employ their senses, to make good decisions based on partial information, and to see how sticking with something can yield meaningful rewards in the end. They learn how to support and be supported by others, regardless of language, and that exploring the “different” might actually mean discovering something good. They learn that the world they belong to is bigger than the walls of their own home or the borders of their own country, and that they will learn to find their way in that big-ness. And they learn language, too.

About the Author

In addition to being a villager parent, Valerie Magna Borey has been a longtime staff member at both Barnehage and Skogfjorden, the Norwegian Language Village and has worked at Concordia Language Villages in a variety of capacities. She taught adult courses in Norwegian at Mindekirken’s Language and Culture Program and has contributed to publications such as Classroom materials for Less Commonly Taught Languages (CARLA, 2007), Children Under construction: Critical essays on play as curriculum (Peter Lang, 2010), and Learning Languages Journal (NELL, 2011). She has presented sessions at language educator conferences such as the Global Education Conference and the Minnesota Council on the Teaching of Languages and Cultures. 

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