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Early Language Learners Discover the World by Sharing Personal Experiences

By Valerie Borey | Published: May 19, 2016

Young children enjoy dramatic play through puppetry and spontaneous storytelling.

I remember acquaintances of mine wrinkling their noses at me when I told them about Barnehage, the Norwegian Pre-K Immersion Program, wondering why I was torturing my child with academic studies at such a tender age. I think they envisioned a small stable of weary, dead-eyed toddlers being forced to complete conjugation charts and chanting in unison with one another (in Norwegian), “This is my pencil. It is green. Do you have a green pencil?”

Of course, it wasn’t at all like that. On the contrary. The Barnehage children were learning songs. They were re-enacting the Three Billy Goats Gruff. They were pretending to meet the King and Queen of Norway. They were buying flowers at the market, greeting Bamse (Barnehage’s bright-eyed teddy bear), making paintings in the style of Edvard Munch, playing troll-themed freeze tag to Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  They were not only having a blast, in Norwegian, they were discovering their own ability to explore and appreciate a world that they may have never encountered before.

At first, I thought it was just about the fun. Later, I came to realize that a great deal of the magic (creatively and linguistically) had to do with establishing conditions of joint attention with one another over cultural objects.

Two young villagers explore 'likes and dislikes' with a photographic scavenger hunt.

Joint attention is the ability of one person to coordinate (through looking, pointing, or verbalizing) his/her attentions between an object (say, a glass of water) and another person (for example, a caregiver), and to indicate intent (“I am thirsty. Can you hand me that glass of water?”). That ability to connect with another person makes important things happen. Not only can you exchange information about vital needs, you also learn how to project yourself empathetically into another person’s reality, to understand, intuitively, what it means to be thirsty and what kinds of actions are needed to quench that thirst.

Language learning isn’t really about throwing words at kids and hoping that they’ll stick. It’s about meeting eyes across the room while playing freeze-tag and squealing in unison, “Watch out! That’s a troll over there. Run!” It starts with meeting eyes, with sharing gaze, with pointing; establishing that connection with another individual, over things that are important to both. It becomes sharing experiences, using language, adopting perspectives; extending that gaze into another culture, with speakers of another language.

Clapping and conunting together creates a great language-learning game.

At Barnehage and Concordia Language Villages’ other Pre-K programs, young children learn to share their attentions with a speaker of another language and to reference culturally relevant objects together as a social group. They learn to extend their imaginations into areas previously unexplored, and to be open to sharing experiences with individuals of other languages and backgrounds. This is happening at a time in their development when they are uniquely concerned with building these social skills beyond the dyadic relationship of caregiver-child, learning to recognize the needs of others, and learning how to navigate the practical world around them. How powerful! 

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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