Children who have the opportunity to learn a second language are given a world of opportunity. It opens up new opportunities in terms of who they can communicate with, what they can read, and where they can travel with ease. It is a partial cure for closed-mindedness. Those are the obvious benefits.
But learning a foreign language also has broad cognitive benefits. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language, it:
- is beneficial to the development of problem solving abilities, memory skills, reading abilities, ability to hypothesize in science, and even mathematics*
- correlates with higher academic achievement, including standardized tests and college level academic performance
Overall, there seems to be a correlation between learning a second language and overall intelligence and open mindedness.
*I found it interesting that students who take time away from the study of mathematics to learn another language still do better on mathematics tests than the students who were doing more math (source).
What is the best way to help your child learn a second language?
There are many different ways to learn a foreign language and I have had the opportunity to be exposed to a lot of them over the years.
I grew up speaking only English at home, but learned French in a French immersion program in school. I also learned some Spanish and Italian in college, learned a bit of Japanese from friends and on my own, and studied German at university. I spent a few years living in Germany, where I met my husband. My husband grew up in Germany, spoke French and German at home and went to a German school where he took English and French as foreign languages. We speak English (me) and German (my husband) with our children at home and our son is in his third year at a trilingual school where they speak French, English and Spanish (our daughter starts next year). On top of our own experiences, we have many friends here and overseas who have taught their children multiple languages using many different formations and techniques.
In this post, I want to share some of what I have learned and experienced about second language acquisition. I want to explain what usually works and doesn't work and why. I want to encourage you to give your child the opportunity to learn a foreign language even if you don't speak one yourself.
The earlier the better! The younger your child is, the easier it will be and the greater the benefits to the child. What are you waiting for?
If you or your partner does speak a foreign language
If you or your partner speaks a second language, you are at a significant advantage. Whether you are a native speaker or learned the language as a second language yourself, you can use your linguistic abilities to pass the language on to your children. There are a number of different approaches that you can use:
- One parent, one language: With one parent, one language, each of the parents will choose a language and speak that language consistently with the children. If only one of the parents speaks a foreign language, the choice is easy. If both parents do, either one can speak the foreign language but ideally it should be the parent who spends the most time with the children (i.e. speaking Chinese with mom all day long would be more beneficial than speaking Chinese for an hour with dad in the evening). This is a great technique when the parents want to teach the children two different foreign languages (e.g. community language is English, one parent speaks Polish, the other one speaks Spanish).
- One place, one language: With this technique, different languages would be spoken in different places. For example, the family might choose to always speak English at home and always speak Spanish when outside the home. This can be a good technique for expat families living in a foreign country where they might be ostracized for speaking their home language in public. They can safely teach their home language to their children at home, but speak the language that they are expected to speak when out in public. It can also be useful when you are trying to institute the foreign language as the home language to not have multiple languages circulating in the home environment.
- Parents speak foreign language only: If the parents do not speak the community language or if they really want to ensure that their children become fluent in the foreign language, it may be useful to have both parents exclusively speak the foreign language. This happens often in immigrant families where the parents have not mastered the language of their new home. While we opted for one parent, one language, I now wish we had used this technique instead (i.e. both my husband and I speaking German exclusively with the children). They would have still learned English from my mom and in the community, but this may have made them more willing and more comfortable speaking German.
- Mix: Some families mix things up. Each person speaks whatever language they want, whenever they want. Popular opinion used to be that this would be way too confusing for children and they would never sort out their languages. However, more recent research shows that as long as you are not mixing within a sentence, then mixing might not be that bad after all. In reality, this is probably where we have fallen. My husband does end up speaking a lot of English to our children. I try to make up for that by speaking some German to the kids. We also throw in some French and a bit of Spanish here and there for good measure.
Children will have a strong tendency to favour the community language wherever you live. So no matter how much language immersion you give them at home, they may not actively choose to speak the foreign language with you. Don't see this as a failure. It is reality. Even if your child never speaks a word of the other language, if you have spoken it frequently at home, your child will have been exposed to it enough to take away some of the benefits of second language acquisition. That said, there are things you can do to encourage them to speak the foreign language, but I wouldn't advise forcing them to do it.
If you don't speak a second language
If you do not speak a foreign language, that does not mean that all is lost. There are plenty of ways that you can give your child (and yourself!) the opportunity to learn. These ideas can also be used to reinforce language learning in cases where one of the parents does speak a second language, especially if that parent is not the primary caregiver of the child. Not all of these will necessarily be right for all families or all children. You can pick and choose what will work for you, depending on your preferences, finances and school situation.
- Foreign language school: If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where there are schools in different languages (where we live there are French school boards and English school boards), you could consider sending your child to a school with children who speak another mother tongue. Plenty of children enter kindergarten at schools where they do not speak a word of the language their peers speak and they quickly learn the other language.
- Immersion programs: You can choose a school that has a second language immersion program or at least foreign language classes that your child can participate in. The disadvantage with this type of program is usually the lack of access to native speakers. Instead of learning French in a French environment and playing with French speaking children, your child would be learning French in French class with a bunch of other English speaking children. Immersion programs are better than nothing, but certainly not as advantageous as being completely immersed.
- Weekend or evening classes: A lot of immigrant communities that want to preserve their language will have Saturday classes that their children go to. This can range from play groups to more formal learning. Another opportunity would be for you to attend evening classes and then bring home what you learned and share it with your child. Teaching what you have learned to your child will benefit your child and also reinforce your learning.
- Learning with your child: You can choose to learn a language along with your child. This is a great option for home schooling families. I used to be on a message board about raising bilingual children and there was one woman who let her son choose the languages they were going to learn and then they learned them together.This can either be a very big investment or an extremely frugal activity. You can invest in buying DVDs with movies and language lessons, CDs with songs and lessons, books and magazines, dictionaries, and so on. Or you can use a combination of the library and the Internet to build your own materials. Online you can find pronunciation guides, You Tube videos, dictionaries, and much much more. There are even websites where you can hear the sounds animals make in different languages! You can also combine arts and crafts with language learning by doing things like making a language Bingo game. I just discovered a blog called Bilingual for Fun that looks like it may have some good ideas and experience on it.
- Vacations: Try to travel somewhere with your child where the second language is spoken. If you are in the United States, some obvious easy options are Quebec, Canada (to the North) and Mexico (to the South). Try to get out of the touristy areas where people are likely to speak English and find spots where your child will be exposed to more of the native language. Staying at small bed and breakfasts and visiting local playgrounds can be good ways to hear the language being spoken. You can also use the opportunity to pick up some materials (books, DVDs, etc. in the foreign language).
- Nanny or babysitter: If you need to hire someone to take care of your children, consider hiring someone who speaks another language. This will give your children significant exposure to a third language. We know one family where the children learned French and English from their parents and Turkish from the nanny. When the family traveled in Turkey without the nanny, their five year old was the one who communicated for the family at hotels, restaurants, tourist information, etc.
- Play dates, play groups and playgrounds: A great way to reinforce language learning is through play. If you can find native speaking families to have play dates with, find language oriented play groups, or find playgrounds where children speak another language (e.g. the playground in China Town in your city), this is a great opportunity for your children to hear real people speaking the language they are learning at home.
Regardless of the approach or the tools that you take, keep it fun and mix things up. Using a mix of different techniques will keep your child interested and reinforce what has been learned.
Your experience? Your questions?
Have you learned a second language or taught one to your children? What was your experience like? What challenges did you face? What resources or techniques would you suggest?
Are you interested in exposing your children to a second language? What is holding you back? What questions do you have?