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Teen Language Learning: The Whys and Hows

Teens learning Spanish in Nicaragua
Teen language learning in Nicaragua.
Photo courtesy of VISIONS Service Adventures.

Why learn a second language? Being able to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language is a valuable skill in today’s shrinking world. However, it’s only the beginning….

“Language learning correlates with higher academic achievement on standardized test measures.” – American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages

 “Researchers found that young adults proficient in two languages performed better on attention tests and had better concentration than those who spoke only one language, irrespective of whether they had learned that second language during infancy, childhood or their teen years.” – LiveScience.com

 “As a young adult preparing to enter the professional world upon graduation, the ability to speak a second language is a great skill. … To a potential employer, your ability to communicate with manufacturers in Asia or target Spanish-speaking demographics here in the United States is a valuable asset.” – CareerRealism.com

“those entering the workforce in 2014 with second language fluency can expect an additional 10 to 15 percent pay increase” – US News & World Report

Learning a foreign language in early childhood may lead to better pronunciation, but don’t fall prey to the idea that it’s the only time to learn a new language well. There is research-based evidence that adolescents can make more progress in language acquisition than young children, thanks to their increased cognitive skills and ability to grasp abstract concepts. That said, while younger children tend to have a natural affinity for learning a new language, teens tend to be the ones who most need language acquisition to be meaningful for it to be successful. And what better way to make it meaningful, than by putting teens into situations where they are obliged to use the language they are acquiring?

I had four years of Spanish under my belt when I was 15 and my parents decided to take our family on a one-week vacation to Mexico.

“Go ask that housekeeper if this gate leads to the pool.”

I earned straight 'A's in Spanish, and could have written the question down on a piece of paper without making a grammatical mistake. But asking aloud, and off the cuff? I swallowed my self-consciousness, and stuttered out, “Um, la piscina… “

The housekeeper responded with a smile. “Sí, se llega a la piscina por aquí.”

Unduly proud, I led my parents through the gate and out to the pool. Learning the basics is the first step in language acquisition, but getting past the barrier of self-consciousness and actually practicing what you’ve learned is a close second. I’d jumped the first hurdle on what became a passion for language learning.

Ginny Ulichney reports a similar experience from the trip she took to Nicaragua with VISIONS International when she was 14. “Before the trip, I had just completed Spanish 1 Honors in school. I would say that I had a beginner to intermediate understanding of Spanish and was good at writing it and understanding it, but speaking it was much more difficult for me. The trip greatly improved my fluency…. We were forced to learn Spanish and gained fluency quickly because we were located in a village where no one else spoke English.”

Ginny cites the village stay as a key factor to the success of her language and cultural immersion, along with the fact that VISIONS offers longer trips (21-30 days for high school students) than many of the other programs she considered. 

Ginny Ulichney in Nicaragua
Ginny Ulichney helped dig holes for the foundation of a medical clinic during her trip to Nicaragua with VISIONS Service Adventures.

For many, breakthroughs come when language learners commit to speaking the target language night and day. My biggest breakthrough in Spanish came when I was 19, and lived for 10 months with a family in Spain (through Boston University’s study abroad program). Europeans, in their polyglot continent, take language learning more seriously, and sending students for homestays is common. My Italian husband and his brother were sent to the UK for their first English homestay when they were just 14 and 13.

For those who are not ready to send their teens off on their own, it’s also possible to build language learning for the kids into a family trip. Even as a family, it’s possible to find homestays instead of a hotel. Some language schools overseas also offer classes for both kids and adults, and can organize homestays and volunteer work to give you a chance to put the language into practice.

Can’t get away? Language camps in the US can be the next best option. While there are several well-known big camps, many smaller camps are organized across the country, such as the one-week Spanish camp I attended in my home state of Washington, the summer after eighth grade. All camp activities were conducted in the target language, and foreign exchange students provided the opportunity for authentic practice.  

In addition to the tangible benefits of higher test scores and rosier job prospects, studies indicate that learners of a second language are more creative and better problems-solvers, have improved multi-tasking and decision-making skills, and are more likely to stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia. Who couldn’t use all of that?

Teen Language Learning Resources

VISIONS Service Adventures: Service, cultural immersion, and language learning programs (Spanish in Latin America or French in Guadeloupe), for those in middle and high school. Service trips also available in locations across the U.S. as well as Cambodia and Myanmar.

Middlebury Monterey Language Academy: One of the most renowned language programs in the U.S., offering 4-week camps in Spanish, French, Chinese, German or Arabic, at two sites stateside and three abroad. The program is expensive, but some financial aid is available, including full scholarships for Arabic.

Homestay.com has brought “homestays from the education travel sector into mainstream leisure travel.” Students are not the target traveler, but there are many hosts that can accommodate two or more guests for traveling families. Hosts are onsite, and their hobbies are listed to help find a good match.

Lingoo is an online service that connects students with private homestays. Families can arrange a student exchange (which can be short or long term), or a paid stay for their child.

While researching my guide to Volunteer Vacations in Latin America, I came across several local language schools that can arrange homestays (and volunteer work if desired), for very reasonable prices:

Some language schools accept independent teen travelers and all accept families.


Amy E. Robertson Amy E. Robertson is the author of Volunteer Vacations in Latin America (2013, Moon Handbooks). Her writing has been published on NPR, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel, Delta Sky, National Geographic Traveler, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and Travel + Leisure, among others. Amy has lived in six countries and traveled in more than 60. Her volunteer experiences include building houses in Washington State and Honduras, monitoring presidential elections in Ecuador, working with youth on social documentaries in Bolivia, and serving lunch at soup kitchens in Seattle and Beirut. She has a background in international development and nonprofit management and has worked in both the private and nonprofit sectors.

You may see Amy's many articles for us, her numerous books, and her expanded bio page here.


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Teen Study
Teen Language Learning Abroad Programs
 
 
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