How to teach your mother tongue to your spouse (part 2 of 3)

logo blog post about teaching one‘s mother tongue

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How to teach your mother tongue to your spouse (continued)

The attitude to have

The method highlighted here demands time, and learning a language is in any case a long process. Patience and discipline for you and your partner are thus the key to success! For instance instead of looking for immediate, impressive results, have the discipline to move on little by little every day, even if it looks as if you’ll never make it given the project’s sheer size; progress will follow. Also for example have the patience of letting your spouse remember things at his/her own speed. It could mean letting him/her answer in the common language whenever you use your mother tongue, in the beginning at least. Contrary to what it seems, s/he is learning and one day, when s/he is facing someone who only speaks your mother tongue, s/he will use it and you’ll see the results of your efforts!

Remember also that your goal is to allow your partner to understand the language and to be understood, and not to speak correctly. In practice it means that whenever s/he uses sentences that are incorrect (grammatical aspect, conjugations…), the only question that matters is: “do we understand what s/he means?” No? Correct right away. Yes? Continue teaching and mention the mistake much later, if at all, when the student has become more comfortable using the language and is ready to remember your instructions.

Finally try to avoid translating a whole sentence as soon as it’s not understood. Instead try to identify where the problem is, if possible simply by “reading” your student. Indeed, it is exhausting and frustrating to repeat all the time “I don’t understand a thing!”, so spare your student this trouble by identifying what s/he doesn’t understand by looking at his/her attitude, facial expression, by remembering what s/he knows already or not, etc. Then it’s up to you to decide whether the element is unimportant and you shouldn’t spend more time on it, or on the contrary whether it’s key and must be understood. In this case try first and foremost to have your spouse guess the meaning (guide his/her thinking, repeat, mime, use synonyms, point with your finger…). Translating the problematic part should be kept as a last resort.

The art of making sentences that are easy to understand and remember

Most of your teaching job will consist in speaking your mother tongue in a correct but simplified way, based on what the student already knows. From there you’ll add new things little by little to make it easy to remember. As the student moves on you’ll add more complex things (while still using what s/he already knows as a base) to get closer and closer to the language as it is spoken between natives.
So the first step is to stick to short and simple sentences: no long descriptions, sentences with commas, complicated tenses and the like. A subject, a verb and some extra information (time, place, adjective…). Start by talking in present tense and about concrete things: the weather, food, something happening nearby… Avoid abstract topics such as emotions, suppositions and the like. You’ll add them later, with complex tenses, when your partner is able to follow a basic conversation.
Watch out though: saying things simply can prove very difficult! Take the time to formulate the sentence in your head before pronouncing it aloud and repeating multiple times. If you say something then change it three times, your spouse won’t remember a thing.

Do note that using slang isn’t a problem at all; if these expressions and words are used in the everyday life then your spouse must know them! Just make sure you explain in which context they can be used.

Next, speak at normal speed. Your partner must learn the language as it is spoken, not some kind of school version where we clearly pronounce each syllable. However repeat each sentence a second time, more slowly, to help identify the words. Then repeat again at normal speed. This will help the student to link a sentence with its proper pronunciation while still highlighting the words it’s made of (and which s/he may already know).

Finally the ground rule is to never use more than one or two unknown words per sentence. This way you’ll still be able to teach new things but without confusing your spouse in the process since s/he will understand 80% of what you say and can focus on what’s missing. Beyond this limit s/he won’t understand you and will give up.
So pronounce the sentence once, stop when you reach the new word, repeat it, translate it, then pronounce the whole sentence again from the start, then continue. Your partner’s brain will then easily match the word with its translation and remember it.
For example: « I am never sick »
Let’s say your partner doesn’t know the word “never” and your common language is French. What you will say will be something like: “I am never, never, jamais, I am never sick.” (pause after each comma)

Since it can prove difficult to have a conversation while never using sentences with more than two unknown words, think about the following two tips:

  • Use the vocabulary and expressions the student uses, even if they are not fully correct. At least the person will understand them and it will allow you to build more complex sentences.
    An example in French: my spouse used to say “je pense tu aimes…” (“I think you like…”) instead of “je pense QUE tu aimes…” (“I think THAT you like…” which is how it’s said in French) and I used the exact same sentence to help her understand what I was saying.
  • Use words with a similar pronunciation and meaning between the common language you use with your spouse and your mother tongue (so-called “cognates”). Even if in real life you’d pick a synonym, do use cognates to help the student guess the word’s meaning and understand the sentence, thus decreasing the number of unknown words. Be careful however to avoid false-friends (words with a similar pronunciation but a very different meaning)!
    This, by the way, led me to develop a kind of “French for foreigners”, meaning a simplified version of the language where I use specific words that make it easier to understand for someone speaking English and/or Swedish.
    Here are some examples of cognates between French and English:
    – Use « sofa » instead of « canapé » (though the latter is much more common)
    – Use “célébrer” instead of “fêter” (though, again, the latter is more common)
    – Use “difficile” instead of “dur”
    (For readers who don’t understand French, can you see that the first words’ meaning is easier for you to guess than the second ones’? That’s why you should use cognates!)

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