I’m in the rather interesting position of helping my kids learn a foreign language on a daily basis; it’s just that the foreign language they’re learning happens to be my native language. I can’t imagine my children not speaking English, nor can I imagine not speaking English to my children. Conversely, I find it just as important that they master French, the language of their father, their father’s family, their father’s country.
There are many theories as to language sharing in multi-lingual households, for who should speak what and when, but we stick to the one language, one parent idea. I speak English to my kids and my husband speaks French. Rather, most of the time he speaks French to them; he likes to slip into English when we’re in public.
As the speaker of the minority language (the language not spoken by the country in which we live), I’ve had to find lots of English speaking opportunities for my kids, to encourage them and help them along. They have an English nanny, they watch English TV, they belong to English playgroups and they go to special English classes run by a local Montessori teacher. This strategy has worked so well that their strongest language is English, sometimes to their father’s dismay.
Why is speaking a foreign language fluently important? For one thing, English has about 375 million native speakers and although it is the most widely learned second language in the world, not everybody in the world speaks it. Speaking another language will help bridge the gap even if both you and the other speaker speak English. Business wise, this can only be a good thing. Learning another language opens your horizons personally as well as professionally. Tackling a difficult task and succeeding can only make you stronger. Learning another language can help you to better understand another culture- if I did not speak French I would have had many more problems understanding the French, beyond the obvious linguistic barriers.
There are many language schools, programs and systems designed to teach children foreign languages from the very youngest of ages. The problem is that they are very expensive. Here are five frugal ways to help your children to learn a foreign language.
- The most successful strategy by far is face to face contact with a native speaker. I remember reading studies which have shown that children retain information better when learning it from a person rather than from the same person on a videotape. If you live in a university town you could put up a notice on an international student board at the school; students might want to spend some time with your family in exchange for speaking to the children in their native language.
- Another important component in helping your children to learn a foreign language is to make it a part of their every day life. I have a French friend who does bath time in English with her two daughters. As it is a part of their routine the girls accept it and have learned a great deal. They have no problem switching between the two languages. This same friend, who speaks English and German fluently, said that her parents had regular ‘language nights’ when she was growing up. Every Tuesday and Thursday, for example, they had to speak English all evening long.
- Use lots of different media. Mrs Micah just had a discussion on her desire to brush up on her French, and the same tips given in her post and in the comments also apply to children. Read books in the foreign language, watch videos, go online. Try watching a favorite DVD in another language; my kids usually watch movies in English, but sometimes we put a short one on in Spanish and they love it.
- Make it fun! If you live near a big enough city to support a community with the targeted foreign language, then try to see if you can find children’s activities in that language. I know that the Alliance FranÃ§aise in some major American cities holds language classes for children that very closely resemble playgroups. We attend playgroups and associations in English in our town and I know there are similar organizations for Italian, Spanish and German speakers. I wouldn’t be surprised if they existed for other language speakers as well.
- Do it together. My kids love to ask me how to say words in French or Spanish, even words they know. Sometimes I know the translation, sometimes I don’t. We have lots of fun playing this game together, especially in the car with a modified version of ‘I Spy’.
I use all these strategies with my own children and so far it has been a success. They speak both languages as fluently as a five year old, a four year old and an eight month old do, that is to say with plenty of mistakes! I feel confident, however, in their ability to learn and adapt, and to appreciate their family’s different languages and cultures.
Do you speak another language than English? Do your children? Have you helped them learn another language, and if so, how?