At school I teach Spanish to students in groups as young as 4.5-5 years old.  Despite their beginning level of understanding, I strive to stay in Spanish almost the entire time.  When I see their doe-eyed faces looking back at me most of class, I’m unsure how much is actually sinking in.  After a few weeks, however, they can follow my directions and answer simple questions with ease.  While I could boast about my incredible teaching skills, I’d like to talk instead about a less obvious factor of language learning.  People can easily underestimate the power of the inflection.

I was reminded of this fact last night as I was heading into dreamland, Jonathan at my side reading.  My eyes were already heavy and my lips too tired to open, but I was curious about why he was up.  I managed to let some noises escape,

“Hhmm mm mmm hhmmhmm?” (What are you doing?)

“Reading,” he replied.

“Hmh mmhm?” (How come?)

“Book club,” he answered.

Our wordless conversation brings to life the meanings found through inflections.  When I think to my students hearing me in class, I know they don’t understand every single word I’m saying.  They hear, “Vamos a empezar” (“We’re going to get started”) at the beginning of each class and they connect it with the meaning that the first activity is over and we’re starting the class lesson.  Eventually they learn the word empezar (=”to start or begin”) in a lesson, and connect the dots.  Once a students declared, “Hey! That’s what you say everyday–‘Vamos a empezar’!”  He was now able to put meaning into each word, instead of just the general idea.  It doesn’t discourage me from the immersion style of teaching.  When my 5-year-old’s hear, “Vamos a la alfombra” as I wave them towards the rug, I don’t expect them to translate it literally to English.  They hear the inflection, they see the motions, and the meaning begins to form in their head.  Someday that meaning will grow stronger and they’ll connect the dots themselves.  For now, I’ll use as much intonation and body language as I can.  I know they’ll learn to understand bit by bit.

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