Videos of the Vernacular

Sesame Street Fiesta!
1997 Children's Television Workshop


I have been immersed in languages, and so have we all. We acquire language before we know why it's a language; we learn to communicate first through a home-and-street experience, before the classroom.

This simple acknowledgment is backdrop for why I am intrigued and puzzled by so-called "immersion" schools. I'm all for learning other languages, especially for learning to think in them, but if the immersion is formalized then can it be immersion?

On a more practical and more haphazard level, we witness and participate in language immersions of our own, all the time. Maybe, within the last week, you went to a restaurant where the host or waiter was speaking English as a second language. Or you heard a character on a TV show say "de nada," without translation. This kind of encounter is more and more common, and it suggests a parallel and more self-guided path to "immersion"--using the media to learn about the world and its ways of speaking.

So--one fascinating route to discovering another tongue and culture is through the whole media grab bag: TV, radio, records, movies. It's been proposed that learning a second language helps structure your thinking for other kinds of learning. Sign language, for example, is not just for the deaf, but a way for all of us to gesture more expressively and meaningfully; and Spanish is fast becoming the de facto "other language" of the United States. Wherever your experiences or interests lie relative to these thoughts, you could consider some of the following videos, all of which are $20 or under:

Say, Sing & Sign Songs is a fairly didactic and straightforward song-performance tape featuring an ASL instructor who both sings and (naturally) signs the songs. It's not slick like so many other kids' videos, but the instructor is an energetic performer and takes the time to go through the lyrics first, before the music begins. This tape might work well for an audience of kids with varying abilities in hearing and/or language, but all with a need to learn sign ($19.95. 714-771-6519/1-800-535-8368. Production Associates, 1227 W. Collins Ave., Orange, CA 92667).

Sign and ABCs is an odd title, for the right reason: it simultaneously teaches both the ABCs and signing, both the individual-letter signs and the term-based signs for whole words. A man and woman, both great performers, present the letter signs and then a few terms for each letter ("awake, aware . . ."), and then comes the payoff--real kids, shown individually, do the same, while someone off screen also says the word out loud. Methodical as it sounds, this tape has a good handle on the uses of "redundancy" in learning and could even be a good reference tape ($14.98. 1-888-SIGNIT2. Aylmer Press, P.O. Box 2735, Madison, Wisconsin 53701) .

Juana La Iguana: El Barco Magico is aimed at preschoolers but is a genuine immersion experience for the English-speaker of any age--it's an all-Spanish Sesame Street style program, about an adventurous iguana and her friends, with lots of songs and skits involving kids and puppet characters. The production values are impressive and the songs infectious, but English is "foreign" to this experience ($14.95. 1-888-305-7575. Iguana Productions, Ltd.).

Sesame Street Fiesta! is basically a party on video, with the familiar mix of characters, skits, and music. This time, though, the songs rely greatly on Spanish, and Oscar has to grumble about a carnival celebration instead of his usual gripes. As a way to let kids know other languages can lead to other kinds of fun, this would make a great introduction (available at retail--press clips to: Beth Blenz-Clucas, AV Publicity Services, 5505 SW Illinois Street, Portland, OR 97221).

Spanish for Gringos is aimed at adults, possibly even casual travelers, but its wacky approach could also entertain kids. Host Bill Harvey meets his audience more than halfway, proposing that they probably just want a few basic words--but then he proceeds to demonstrate his basic vocabulary in some amusing skits with genuine Spanish-speakers. As in a therapist's session where "triste" and "contento" alternate with lots of facial mugging to emphasize their meaning. I'd bet that many actual language teachers would complain about Harvey's route to cultural understanding, but his enthusiasm for both Spanish and Spanish-speakers is obvious, and he makes a decent case for starting "immersion," by whatever means necessary ($14.95. 1-800-535-8368. Production Associates, 1227 W. Collins Ave., Orange, CA 92667).

Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology for Minnesota Parent.

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