Teaching Children a Foreign Language

Someone wrote me this week asking how I teach my children Italian. Even before we moved abroad, I had given this question a lot of thought. Our Casteluzzo Academy curriculum (at our homeschool), includes some very ambitious language goals. But what really matters with language study for children are the little everyday details. Here are 10 tips on how to make the most of language learning whether your children are seventeen months or seventeen years old.

1. Start right away. It is never to early to learn a foreign language. My children are three and five, and we’ve been exposing them to foreign languages since birth. But it’s never too late to start. Many people (myself included) have learned multiple languages as adults. Whatever age you are, there is no reason to wait. Start now, even if all you do is watch a cartoon  together in your target language. Most DVD’s have a language menu with at least a couple of language options, including subtitles.

2. Tell them it’s easy. That’s right: it’s not just possible, it’s easy to learn a foreign language! One of the most important early tasks children’s brains perform is learning to speak a foreign language–their own! Explain to them that their brains are designed to learn a foreign language easily. It is true, and it will give them confidence. I have observed that even for adults, one of the most important factors for success in learning a foreign language is how hard we think it is. Tell yourself it is easy, and it will get at least a little easier.

3. Be a good example. Just like with everything, children listen to what you do, not what you say. If you want them to learn a foreign language, start studying it yourself. It shows them that learning a language is important. It also helps them to see that it’s work for you too. When I make an embarrassing error or have a funny language situation happen to me, I always tell my children about it. That way, they understand that making mistakes and laughing about them is all part of the process of language-learning. Studying yourself can also have a more direct effect on your children. When we were in the United States, I would check out Pimsleur CD’s from the library and put them on while I was cooking dinner. Sure enough, pretty soon I would hear my children repeating phrases right along with the CD.

4. Study with them. Don’t just sit them down with a workbook. If you must do a workbook, do it together. Better yet, read a story in the language, or listen to one together. Use an interactive computer program together. My children love reading picture dictionaries together. Our favorites are the “First 1000 Words” series from Usborne, which have a different scene on each page (e.g. farm, school, hospital, etc.), with everything labeled in the target language. These can be found in the more common languages at most libraries, and there is a matching internet site with pronunciation audio files for all the words. If you make language-learning time a special time with you, it will have positive associations for your children. Language-learning is not a solo activity. Talking and listening together is the best way to learn.

5. Make it a game. My husband likes to study Italian situationally. He imagines himself having a conversation with someone about something, figures out how to say everything he would like to say, and then memorizes it. Then he goes out and has that conversation, sometimes multiple times with different people. Sometimes beforehand he practices with me, or with the children. When it is a no-pressure situation, children like to have a little pretend conversation. In fact, they will happily have the same conversation over and over again, especially if you use funny voices and exaggerated gestures.

6. Find a friend. Children need a reason to speak a language, and there’s no better reason than a friend who doesn’t understand English. A child or a foreign-language-speaking playgroup is fine, but for my children an adult works better. Across the street from us lives Beatrice, a sweet widow with no grandchildren who has become a sort of Italian grandma for my children. We visit her, help her with her yard, take her cookies, and invite her to Church when the children are singing. Sometimes she comes over and invites Axa to her house for an hour to see her rabbits, make a snowman, or help in the garden. Since Beatrice speaks no English, their language of conversation is Italian. Axa loves her, so she is motivated to speak to her.

7. Do it every day. Five minutes a day is much more effective than a half hour once a week. Find a way to incorporate a little bit of your language into every day, whether it is learning a few new words or phrases, listening to folk-songs, reading a picture book, or talking to a native speaker. Children love routines and rituals. If your language study is consistent and enjoyable, they will look forward to it and ask for it if you forget.

8. Use multimedia resources. Especially if you are not a native speaker, use CD’s, movies, and computer programs to help your children learn. One of our favorite free online resources is Livemocha. My children and I like to do a lesson together, taking turns saying the words after the person on the computer. They also love to help correct other people’s English-speaking assignments. It really helps them to hear someone trying to learn their language. We also enjoy ItalianPod (also available for Chinese, Spanish, and French). Each ten-minute lesson includes a funny dialogue in the target language, and then a conversation in English where two people talk about the dialogue and explain it to each other. Do preview the lessons beforehand, as not all of them are appropriate for children. Both websites have a basic free version (the one we’ve used) and an upgraded paid service.

9. Make it come alive. If you possibly can, plan a visit to the country whose language you are studying. It will give your children motivation to study, provide a great immersion capstone experience, and maybe even help them meet some friends and future penpals. If not, have a special night where you eat food from that country, dress up like the people, read folk-tales, and maybe even have a visit from someone native to the country. Or visit your local Chinatown, Little Italy, Hispanic neighborhood, etc. When we lived in Fallbrook, California, I shopped at the local Mexican grocery store. They had good, cheap produce (including wonderful mangoes), delicious fresh, warm tortillas, and lots of other fun and interesting foods. And opportunities to speak Spanish with everyone in the store.

10. Enjoy the journey. Learning another language is more than just a tool to boost test scores and increase job opportunities. It is a a way to make friends with new and interesting people, and a celebration of the fascinating, beautiful world we live in. Don’t make it a chore, make it a pleasure. Make sure you’re learning a language that you really love. For example, just because everyone says Spanish is the most useful second language for Americans doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right language for your family. Maybe you’d be happier with Arabic, Chinese, or French. Involve your children in choosing the language they will learn. And if you do get bogged down in drudgery, put the language study aside for a day and treat the whole family to a nice dinner at an ethnic restaurant with cuisine from your chosen country.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching Children a Foreign Language

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  • January 12, 2011 at 10:21 am
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    I just found your blog and I wanted to say hi. I live in Torino and have a 8 month old daughter. I speak only English to her and my husband speaks only Italian and so far it’s working well. She waves her hands if you say “hi” or “ciao”. She also understand “clap your hands/batte le manine” and does the action. Your tips are great for those wanting to learn any language!

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