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Monday, July 2, 2012

My Language Star

Benedicte and Clementine, Language Stars Center Teachers

A couple of weeks ago I took Zach to French storytime at the Playseum in Bethesda.  The book, La Chenille Tres Affamé (The Very Hungry Caterpillar), was  "read" by Clementine, a native French speaker and one of the teachers at the Language Stars center in Bethesda (see her in the blue shirt below). Language Stars is one of the multiple foreign language centers for kids which seem to have popped up everywhere in the DC Metro area (Communikids, Language Planet, Language Fundamentals, etc.). And essentially this less of a story-time than a sample class. 
The methodology is total language immersion (they call it FunImmersion), and consists of constant singing or extremely sing-songy talking and big gestures and silliness to achieve maximum interactivity and fun. It goes something like this (entirely in French):
Teacher: [singing] What is in my bag? What is in my bag? 
Kids: [engaged]
Teacher: Is it a ----nananana [guitar mimicking]--guitar?  [big eyes, dynamic voice]. 
Kids and teacher: Nooooooo!
Teacher: is it a ----myamyam [mimicking eating] -- pizza? 
Kids and teacher: Noooooo!
Teacher: It is an apple! Apple?
Kids: Apple!
Teacher: Apple?
Kids: Apple!
Teacher: Do I ---myamyam [rubbing tummy, smiling] -- like apples?  Or do I --- blegh--- [making a disgusted face] - not like apples?

Et cetera. 
Clementine solicited answers participation from the kids individually by getting up close and offering her fist as a pretend microphone again and again as the caterpillar consumed his menu of foods including salami, watermelon, cherry pie, until the end when he became a butterfly and the newly minted mini-Francophones repeated after Clementine: “papillon!”. 

In fact, this was not my first exposure to Language Stars. Zach had already attended a trial class the week before, which was similar to the story-time but longer (80 minutes), with various activities including snack-time, which went something like this:
Teacher: Who would like a spoon?  Who would like a spoon?
[Teacher points microphone to child] Would you like a spoon?
[Child hesitates]
[Teacher smiles with microphone still pointed] Spoon?
[Child] Spoon!
Repeat for plate, juice and goldfish crackers. With all the repetition by the time the kids actually got something to eat even I was hungry!
I am surprised at how well Zach responded to this method, both at the trial and the story-time. It is designed for total beginners, which with his simple but solid basic French, made him the star of the class: he excitedly shouted out "c'est un livre!" as Clementine was going through the “Is it a pizza?” routine while holding the book. She said to me afterwards that they thought the format was a bit simple for him (forgive my gratuitous boast by including that detail). But as far as I am concerned on both occasions he was engaging in French and clearly enjoying himself. So even if this is just reinforcing things he already knows, or giving him confidence in his French, I was impressed. 

While my attention was focused on Zach's reactions, I also was trying to gauge the response of the (presumably) non-French speakers, and both today and during our trial session they seemed to be totally engaged in this incredibly intensive style of the teachers.  I know for a fact it would drive me insane to hear or do this for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time (and I wonder about the long-term mental effects on the teachers who must be doing this for hours each day). But at least for my four year old, this was a total hit.
My hesitation at enrolling him in their program is the price: at $553 for 15 hours (nearly $37 per hour!), while I imagine it is comparable to other programs in the area, I find it very expensive. When I visited the center, the Director, Sara Rath (a French Canadian who was very welcoming and helpful) told me that discounts are possible (up to 50%) if parents help with various school needs (i.e. cutting out paper props) during the time their child is in class. This is certainly a generous deal, but it would still mean quite an investment. Based on what I have seen, however, the potential return is likely worth it.  In the meantime, I will be back at story time, which takes place every other Monday mornings at 11:00 a.m. (next date: Monday, July 9): for the $12 it costs for the two of us to go to the Playseum, it is worth the price for all the fun to be had there even without the French!
In conclusion [please read the following text the tune of "London Bridge"]. 
"The Language Stars experience is not for adults, not for adults, not for adults.   Language Stars is not for adults, not for adults."

[Now in the sing-song voice:]
Is it for chickens? 
Noooo! 
Is it for elephants?
Noooo!
Is it for kids? 
Yes!