Teaching Kids a Foreign Language Frugally

by Kelly · 17 comments

in Repeats

This post was originally published on June 17, 2008. As the mom to three bilingual children (French and English) and a former language teacher, I’m always looking for frugal ways to help them better their language skills.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 Française 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.
  5. 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?


    1 neimanmarxist January 3, 2009

    i grew up bilingual (spanish / english) my parents were expats living in Argentina but we went to an argentine, not an american school. We spoke english at home with mum and dad and spanish with everyone we knew, including our governess, friends, teachers, etc. our spanish was stronger than our english, but when we went to university (in english) that all changed! Imagine, at the ripe age of 18!

    neimanmarxist´s last blog post..Why Finances Aren’t Part of my New Year’s Resolutions

    2 Brian Barker January 3, 2009

    As far as learning another language, is concerned, can I put in a word for the international language, Esperanto?

    Although Esperanto is a living language, it helps language learning as well.

    Five British schools have introduced Esperanto in order to test its propaedeutic values. The pilot project is being monitored by the University of Manchester and the initial encouraging results can be seen at http://www.springboard2languages.org/Summary%20of%20evaluation,%20S2L%20Phase%201.pdf
    You might also like to see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    Confirmation can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

    3 Erin G January 3, 2009

    Hi Kelly – I just found your blog (thanks google reader!)…

    I speak German as a second language, and my husband’s first language is Dutch (though he doesn’t have it much anymore… certainly not well enough to teach our son), and we totally agree with you on the reasons to raise a bilingual child.

    our county offers several magnet programs in the public schools for language immersion, and we will certainly be taking advantage of these when our son (now 17 months) is old enough.

    thanks for the great post!

    Erin G´s last blog post..2008: Year in Review

    4 Al January 3, 2009


    Something is wrong with the pictues. They aren’t showing up.


    5 Kelly January 3, 2009

    Hi Al,
    Try refreshing the page, as they are showing up on my computers. Or try a different browser- that might do the trick! But thanks for the heads up- it’s always good to know about potential problems.

    6 Frank January 3, 2009

    Cool, this is a very interesting article. My wife is German, I’m Belgian (Dutch-speaking) and my wife and I speak English as a common language.

    Last week our first daughter Caitlin was born, and we intend to speak our own languages with here. This means my wife speaks German to her, I speak Dutch, and when talking to my wife we will still continue English. We are curious to see how this will develop, but since we are both teachers, we have good hopes. I’ll keep you informed if you want. (it will still take a while before Caitlin starts talking though)

    Frank´s last blog post..Caitlin’s First Photoshoot

    7 Erin G January 3, 2009

    yeah me too on the pics, it’s not just Al. 🙂

    Erin G´s last blog post..2008: Year in Review

    8 Frank January 3, 2009

    I have no problem with the pictures. I use IE on this computer, and they show up fine.

    Frank´s last blog post..Caitlin’s First Photoshoot

    9 Kelly January 3, 2009

    That’s really funny, because I’ve tested it in a couple of different browsers and on different computers. Here’s the link to when the post originally appeared: http://almostfrugal.com/2008/06/17/five-frugal-ways-to-help-kids-learn-a-foreign-language/ try looking there. Otherwise, it’s not important- the images aren’t important for the post!

    10 niki January 4, 2009

    My friend is trying to teach a second language to her daughter and they borrow these great books and videos from the library. I think they are called Muzzy.

    The library is so full of treasures for us frugal folks!


    niki´s last blog post..Sunday Link Love…To Regift or Not to Regift?

    11 Shevy January 4, 2009

    My hubby speaks Hebrew and English. I’m an English speaker with a smattering of several other languages. I speak Hebrew like a 3 year old and I did very well in French in high school but haven’t used it since then. I want my 5 year old to speak Hebrew fluently but I end up speaking Hebrew to her more than my hubby does! (When you’ve been speaking English only for about 25 years I guess it’s hard to remember to keep speaking Hebrew, although I know he certainly remembers how.)

    We have a few CDs that we play in the car, both adult music and kids stuff, and she knows some simple prayers and blessings. There has been a huge jump though since she started school this year, where half the day is generally done in Hebrew. The thing is, I know that by itself school is not enough. All 3 of my grown kids went through day school and high school and still can’t speak Hebrew adequately.

    I’m currently doing a university level class in Biblical Hebrew, which is helping me with my biblical studies but is only moderately useful in terms of conversation. My biggest problem is a lack of vocabulary, particularly useful vocabulary that relates to a 5 year old’s life.

    12 Kelly January 4, 2009

    Yes, I can imagine that a university course in biblical Hebrew would have a lot of relevant vocabulary for a five year old!
    I think another important component in kids learning language is modeling- do you have any adults with whom you can speak Hebrew in front of your daughter? I think that one of the reasons my kids speak English so well is that they see me speaking it with lots of other people- it’s not an isolated phenomenon.

    13 CC January 8, 2009

    I’m a Speech Pathologist in a high ELL school and I am always telling parents TEACH THE KIDS YOUR HOME LANGUAGE! So many “just” want the kids to know English and that is such a shame.

    I WISH my husband remembered his 1st language and could teach it to the kids.

    We do use ASL sometimes, but neither of us are truly fluent 🙁

    CC´s last blog post..Teaching Tuesday: My childhood favorite can still teach me things!

    14 pam munro January 10, 2009

    As a multi-linguist myself, and a lifelong language learner – I recommend several cheap gambits: (1) Take advantage of internet resources! There are all sorts of language-learning sites on the net GRATIS. Deutsche Welle (German Radio) even has a good introductory German course FREE. I also get language input from about.com’s German and Spanish sites and Spanish word of the day from Collins and so on….
    (2) There is a LOT of inexpensive language learning software sold on the net. I like the deals at Planet CD rom.com.
    (3) Sing songs in the language – it’s a great way to learn vocabulary!
    (4) Play games in the language –
    (5) Use children’s books at the starter level no matter what the age of the learner. They are user-friendly. Kids enjoy b ooks with lots of pictures, too.
    (6) Watch movies in the language with subtitles – (You can get TV close captioned in other languages, too.) My French is less rusty because I watch French flicks on the tube when I can.
    (7) Make sure your kids learn the educated or “high” level of the language as well as the “kitchen table” level. Many languages as spoken at home are really dialects with limited usage in the broad world. (This is espcially true of Spanish in its many variations.) Sometimes studying the grammar, verbs, etc. in a class in school despite speaking the language at home would be in order. (Remember that business is usually done in the more formal level of the language.) Encourage your children to advance to the literary level of the language and to develop their skills as much as possible. (http://www.myfrugallife.com/blog_pamphyila.html)

    15 Max January 13, 2009

    Great article! As a bilingual parents and the directors of a child-focused foreign language learning center, my wife and I thought these were excellent tips. Obviously the more exposure children have to the target language, the more quickly they will learn. Like you said in the last paragraph, you should "… use ALL these strategies with [your] own children…"

    If you are really dedicated to helping your children learn a foreign language, it's important to be constantly thinking of foreign language alternatives to every activity. Try to find foreign language versions of the media your children consume. Our child watches all Disney movies with the Spanish or French language track and we always listen to Latin music in the car and around the house (Our 18 month daughter is already dancing salsa!).

    You can make things fun by hosting foreign language focused events, such as birthday parties, sleep overs, cooking parties, all with a foreign language theme. This is a great way to not only encourage language development, but your child and friends will also learn about the cultures where various languages developed. For example, you could have a French cuisine night, letting your children participate in the creation of authentic French foods. They'll learn kitchen and cooking words and they'll be really proud of their new found cooking skills!

    Anything and everything is a new opportunity to expose your children to a new language!

    Max Leitch

    <a href="http://www.foreignlanguagefriends.com” target=”_blank”>www.foreignlanguagefriends.com

    16 Bonnie February 26, 2010

    Great suggestions!! Trying to teach our kids Chinese. We are not native speakers so there have been some challenges! But I am all about expanding our horizons and frugality so thanks!!

    17 Tina March 2, 2010

    Great information here! What is ALL reference to?

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