It was Sunday morning and that meant family time – and a yummy, decadent trip to the local pastry shop. We’d slip on yesterday’s jeans, a thick sweater and woolen scarf - and on most days a thick, solid pair of rain boots. We most definitely could not forget the rain boots. We had 300 minimum days of rain there per year and preparedness was vital.
We’d walk to the local boulangerie where sweet smelling pains au chocolat and stout shots of espresso would permeate the aromas of the village. It was only 10 a.m. but the more faithful had already traded in their coffee for the local staple, Orval. Their eyes followed us from the cafés’ covered terasses as we strolled by. We were in another world, in a small village of French speaking Belgium.
Ding ding, the familiar sound of the bells and ceramic figurines on the front door would jingle, signaling the salivating to commence. We had become regulars, so the friendly shop owner Madeleine knew what we would order… but we used the occasion to use our French anyway: “Bonjour, un pain au chocolat et un grand café, s’il vous plaît.”
Everyone knew – or at least recognized us. We were just about the only foreigners in the village. My husband actually shared their nationality, Belgian, but coming from the other, northern side of the tiny country that can be traversed by car in a little under 4 hours, he did not share their cultural tradition – or their language. I am American, so I was really an extraterrestrial. But it was our home, and one the in which we would reside (and be reshaped) for almost a decade.
“Hello, Julia”, “Hello, Valentin”…
I had accidentally gone from a few personal English classes for children of friends of my husband to a full-fledged school in a matter of months. I could not go anywhere without running into one of my students.
“C’est Madame Michelle, maman! Regarde! Elle est là!”
Their beaming faces and excitement at catching a glimpse of me made my day…and could take away the ache of loneliness that could sneak up on me, living in a land so different than that which I had been accustomed.
Today I am sitting in a one room kitchen/dining/living space in Silicon Valley, California U.S.A., with one small window permitting sight of a totally different landscape – palm trees that seem to tickle the clouds - and sun… never ending sun. Our umbrellas have been replaced with sunscreen, which now require daily application. I reminisce on a life that now seems too far away to be real.
I have come here to launch TA-DA!, a company whose mission was surely sown in that distant land, but definitely not the sole contributor….
I’ve been fortunate to have been able to see a lot of the world. It started out as an army brat living in Germany the same time as I was learning to speak my first language. The native German I would acquire would be forever lost once we returned to the United States…
I would later study foreign languages in college, study abroad in Grenoble, France; work on my master’s degree near Brussels in Belgium; teach French and English as a Second Language on three different continents – and later, marry a wonderful soul from another country.
Language fascinates me, inspires me, and fulfills me (and of course, yes, often frustrates me). It makes me better. Language not only allows me to understand another better, it allows me to know myself more intimately. In a truly magical way, TA-DA! beautifully brings together my life experiences in a way nothing short of serendipitous.
No matter if I were teaching French at a college in Dallas, Texas, a high school International Baccalaureate program, or English in South Korea, the tune was always the same:
“What can I do to bring (the native language) into our homes outside of class time?”
“You’re the only native English speaker we know, and we don’t speak English…”
“We don’t speak English without a strong accent – an accent we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy – not to mention our kids.”
Parents would actually come to class with handheld recorders asking me to read materials like books, so the kids could be exposed to more of the target language at home when I wasn’t around…
This is the story on how TA-DA! was born. I was born to do this. There is no one thing that precipitated this decision. It was simply a life’s purpose all swirled together into one…one clear, unavoidable, perhaps predestined path.
But hands down what sealed the deal was the birth of my son Christian, a required trilingual.
We are not parents who seek to sculpt a baby genius. (Although infant language acquisition is associated with better brains.) On the contrary we prioritize play time, joy and peace above all for our 4-year-old. We even moved into a matchbox sized apartment to swing sending him to a private school that is child-focused and prioritizes nurturing, calm and play above all (whist launching our bootstrapping startup).
We’re quite simply a multicultural family who needs three different languages to communicate with our family and closest friends.
This was an easier task when we lived in Europe, but still a challenge. We did as linguists say is most effective – one person, one language: I spoke to Christian in my native English; his father spoke in his native Dutch and the community in which we lived provided Christian’s third language, French.
But then life got complicated when we moved to the United States last summer. Christian had just turned 3.
Daddy could continue Dutch, and mommy’s native English was obviously easy to provide, but what about French? Both my husband and I speak fluent French, but we have non-native accents. Only a native speaker can correctly model the correct placement of tongue, lips and teeth when speaking. This is important to us. The French schooling options in our community were more academic than we desired at his tender age. How were we to keep up his French? Not so long ago I would have turned to videos and applications, but I had recently had that option scared right out of me.
While we were in Europe, an international campaign was in full force, spreading the fear of screens like the wildfires currently raging here in California. Most community buildings, city halls, and in particular pediatricians’ office walls were splashed with posters showing children’s brains on screens – and it was horrifying.
“Pas d’ecrans avant 3 ans!” (“No screens before age 3.”)
Help! Screen-based materials were all I could find that could do the job I could not as a non-native speaker of two of the languages my son needed.
To make matters worse, the acclaimed books with the latest research I was reading on multilingualism were crystal clear: the brain would shift somewhere around age 7 making language acquisition memorized and non-native. All the French he had learned in Belgium would be forgotten if we did not move fast! …So now what? The clock was ticking!
This panic, this real urgency invaded me and the calm I wanted so badly to give to my child…a child who would nap and that same day change from baby to toddler to little boy...His language potential was slipping away before my very eyes…
I definitely do not want my son to go through what I did when I learned French as a second language. I was ancient in linguistic terms when I did – 16.
On Having a Choice
My personal French language journey has been about 20-years of intense work that still has not ended. Do I speak well? Sure. People tell me all the time how good my French is for an American”. But do I speak it as well as my native English – or as well as a native French speaker? Absolutely not. Do I have elderly French native speakers who have had little or no contact with foreigners squint their eyes and contort their faces when I speak with them? Absolutely yes. It’s no fun, my friends. And I never want my son to experience that. He’s a Belgian-American and I want him to feel, as he most definitely should, that he belongs in America, Flanders or Wallonia (the latter two both regions in Belgium where his family reside). I want him to feel confident in his skin. I want him to have the choice. And again, according to the latest research, and what I personally believe as a language teacher (and personally having witnessed it with my own students, worldwide) - he can have this gift readily and easily if I carry out his language acquisition journey as closely to the acquisition of his first language – when he is under the age of 7. If I wait until after that delicate age, I am simply reinventing the wheel, making all of our lives harder, and pretty much ensuring that he will never have a native accent. Why would I do that to him - or any of us?
It’s About Time
Life has gotten quite frankly chaotic and busy everywhere, leaving little room for the intense amount of time and commitment foreign language requires (particularly if embarked later in life). Despite what we may think over here in America, and the initial visual indications that life in Belgium remains slow paced and idyllic…for example, mailmen on bikes (outfitted with rain gear) or mail delivery by tractor…life, and the pressure on kids, could really be just as fast-paced and pronounced as in America.
We lived at the border of Luxembourg, the relatively new banking center of the world. Despite our home village remaining a monolingual French society, the parents knew more was needed if their kids were to do better than them. They needed other European languages if success in business in particular was sought. But they also needed English. The linguistic pressure was great. With musical instruments, sports, tutoring and more – for most, there was quite frankly only time for English one day a week at best. This was simply not enough exposure to acquire native-like fluency.
Experts cite 30 minutes, minimum, needed per day of a target language if you want your children to speak the language fluently. It may not sound like much initially, but believe you me, it is a daunting task.
Okay, so it’s clear I believe native fluency most often requires commencement prior to somewhere around age seven (because yes, there are always exceptions to the rules – I’ve seen this too, as a teacher). But this doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a life of monolingualism if we’re finding this out when our children have passed this milestone! On the contrary, it’s never too late to bring the wonder and enlightenment language and culture generously can bestow.
Our hope is simple to disseminate the latest findings so we’re more informed and have the choice to make educated decisions moving forward (and choose for example to make our lives easier by embarking on language from the start). Because we have to admit, there is a lot of conflicting chatter out there, that frankly, confuses even me - and I studied and have worked in the discipline for more than 20 years!
“At what age do we begin teaching our child a foreign language?
How much time is needed per day to acquire native like fluency?
Am I putting too much pressure on my child to add a language to the daily mix?
What if my child experiences language delays? Do I stop?
Will their first language suffer?”
Assembling a Team
We don’t ask these questions lightly. It’s for these reasons we brought on Dr. Charles Chang, a globally schooled Berkeley/Harvard/Cambridge/Seoul/Boston University linguist with a whopping 9 languages under his belt. Together we’ll be a clear, direct, simple voice to help me, us, you do what is best for our precious angels – the reason we live and breathe.
You’ll also meet the rest of the team I’ve had the great fortune of assembling…accomplished engineers and a children’s book cover designer (The Bear and the Piano); a 4x Grammy winning music producer; talented artists… moms and dads... a friendly, international bunch who truly care and have worked around the clock the last two years to make this happen.
In our next series of posts, we’ll highlight how TA-DA! has succeeded in developing outside of the box products which allow small children to learn languages in a fun, natural way – without screens. These products are good enough for us - and those families I grew to cherish and love on those 3 continents.
This is the making of TA-DA!
Mother of a trilingual,
Foreign language teacher,
CEO & Founder TA-DA! Language Productions