What Does Climbing Trees Have to do with Learning a Foreign Language?

Let me begin with a quote from René Descartes:

“It is useful to know something of the manners of different nations, that we may be enabled to form a more correct judgment regarding our own, and be prevented from thinking that everything contrary to our customs is ridiculous and irrational,- a conclusion usually come to by those whose experience has been limited to their own country.”


Of course, Descartes cannot be taken literally; but his point is well taken that we must be open to new experiences. I believe that no one would contest this; nor would anyone find it strange that his child encounters the world anew from day to day, for the experiences he makes are always new. No game is ever played twice in the same manner; no tree he climbs feels the same, and the landscape he views from his high branch appears in a
different light every time.


Perhaps the tree she, the child, likes to climb every recess is always the same. But one day the bark might be wet, one day dry, one day cold and slippery after the first snow. Our children might not be conscious of all these impressions; but they are taking it in, and it becomes part of their body and cognitive knowledge. These daily experiences teach our children that the world is a place of discovery, wonder, and changing conditions. Yes, the tree may be always there, but it looks never the same to those who can see, to those who have developed and maintained the sensitivity to note the differences.


I assume that our children internalize this attitude of wonder towards the world and carry it as a way of being, so that they can meet other people in the same manner. The cultural differences between nations are often quite salient, sometimes very subtle. And a fork held in the wrong manner perhaps causes amusement. But the differences are there to be discovered and not to be judged as inferior to our own ways of doing things.


On a more theoretical level the same can be said about languages. Here they can enter an unknown world of sounds and ways of saying that are quite different from what they are used to. The differences in style, the qualities of German and French, have lasting influence on the way the children see the world. For a tree feels different as a French arbre or a German Baum. The children know nothing at first of the
grammatical qualities of a language. For them they are like the trees they climb. They play in the languages and feel the differences to their mother tongue. However, there is no judgment, there is only experience for the young child. Later on, of course, they learn to make judgments, some children earlier than others. But this judging happens in the spirit of discovery and wonder.


When our children learn that the world is a beautiful place with ever changing nuances, with palettes of
ever mixing colors and expressions, with sounds of hundreds of different languages that express thoughts like I love you in so many ways, then we have every reason to believe that our children help create a world of peace and understanding.