One of the questions asked at camp was if children aren’t introduced to things like a foreign language as a subject how will they spontaneously discover it as something that can be learnt about? The subject of course could be anything and the answer is in a myriad of ways because we are surrounded by so much information and others carrying out their activities all the time that we cannot escape becoming aware of other things.
One of the most common ways you become exposed to a language of course is by travelling and we’ve just come back from a family holiday in Belgium. We could have prepared for the trip by rote learning a few ‘key phrases’ that might have been useful or not and might have been retained after the holiday or not. On the ferry over my kids did ask me what a few of these phrases are in case they wanted to play with other kids they met, so that idea was already on their minds.
But what impressed me the most was not what words of Dutch they learnt but how being surrounded by others speaking different languages made them think about what a language is. My 6 year old daughter asked how does everyone know what words mean in a particular language and where did the words come from originally? Why don’t we all speak the same language? And why does any particular word mean what it does and not something else? After a pondering discussion about these fascinating questions inspiration struck and she decided to make up her own language and proceeded to write up a dictionary of words with little drawings to indicate their meaning.
It doesn’t matter that these are not real words and that she didn’t learn a real foreign language in Belgium her game was in trying to understand the very nature of language and by creating a play model of her own language she was getting to the heart of what is a word, what is its meaning, how do you convey it to someone else and isn’t writing wonderfully useful for these purposes. The game might end there now we’re back home or she might show a friend one day and continue it in another game and the idea might spread through her friendship group, it doesn’t matter because it’s not the only time she will come across and be intrigued by the idea of language.