Teaching Your Child a Foreign Language (Even If You Don’t Speak It!)

Foreign Language Education: Intro

I’ve never met a parent who regretted teaching their child a foreign language. Most people would probably agree that speaking multiple languages is a good thing, even if it is just for the ease of communicating with other cultures (there are definitely way more benefits than that, details below). But how do you go about doing it?

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The American education system typically doesn’t begin foreign language learning until grade 9 (in my case, grade 10), despite the fact that research shows that language learning occurs best at earlier ages.

Side Note: There is currently some debate about this. Most researchers agree on the younger the better, but there are some current linguists who suggest that only the accent is learned best at earlier ages. Gabriel Wyner of Fluent Forever and Steve Kaufmann (cofounder of LingQ and internet polyglot) both postulate that learning a language can be done at any age without added difficulty; they discuss a lot of advantages to learning a language at a later age. Their ideas definitely have merit, so I won’t debate. The assumption of why you’re here, though is that you’d like to teach your child a foreign language.

The Method:

There’s more than one way to teach a foreign language. If you have a loose budget, you can:

  • Enroll your child in a bilingual elementary school or daycare
  • Hire a foreign language speaking nanny and instruct them on your goals
  • Hire a tutor who can be with your child after school hours and speak to them in a foreign language
  • Move to a foreign country for a while

If you have a tighter budget, though, then some of those resources may be a bit out of reach.

Some parents do well with the “One Parent One Language” method–one parent speaks one language exclusively, and the other parent speaks the other language exclusively. This works well, though there can be problems (particularly if one parent can understand both languages, but the other parent can’t; it can be frustrating to have to translate for the spouse and can make conversations tiresome).

Neither my husband nor I are fluent in any foreign language. We both took a few years of Spanish in high school. I also took a year and a half in college, but the Spanish that I know, “There are many books in the library,” isn’t super relevant to everyday life.

Using Everyday Life for Foreign Language

So where do we start? Let’s keep this simple: How did you teach your child their first language (in my case, English)?

I talked to them. And through context and practice, they just understood what I was saying and what I meant.

There’s no reason this process can’t be repeated in a different language.

Pick Something You Say Every Day.

I leave the house every day with my kids. That means there are a few things I say every day to my kids:

  • Put on your shoes.
  • Put on your coat.
  • Get in the car.
  • Buckle your seat belt.
  • Let’s go!

I wrote the sentences and their translations on an index card and stuck it to the front door. That way, when I was heading to the door to go to the car, there was my index card reminding me to do it in Spanish.

Start Small.

When I began with that first index card, I didn’t know how to say, “Put on your shoes.” I only knew how to say, “Shoes!” That’s enough, though, for my kids to understand what I mean. So when it was time to go, I would just shout, “Zapatos,” and they knew that meant shoes. After a week or so of that, I learned to say, “Ponte los zapatos,” and they understood through context that it meant, “Put on your shoes.”

I started with a single word. I built that up to the sentence. Then I built that up to several sentences- all my commands of getting on shoes, coats, and getting into the car.

There are several ways to get reliable translations, especially for Spanish in the United States.

Google Translate isn’t one of them.

I would get reliable translations by:

  • Asking people in stores who were speaking Spanish. They were usually incredibly impressed and supportive that I wanted to teach my kids Spanish. I was a little intimidated at first, but I’ve never had a bad experience by asking someone to share their language with me.
    • I have heard people say that Latin Americans are particularly gracious and supportive to Spanish learners, rather than being snobbish about any imperfections. I don’t know if that’s true or how to quantify it, but it holds true by my anecdotal evidence.
    • I have also heard people say the opposite about the French. However, when my husband and I went there, we did not have that experience. To us, the French were super polite and gracious with my absolutely atrocious French. Perhaps it’s an attitude thing? I dunno.
  • Ask people online. I don’t even have an official Spanish language group, but I’m in a few “mom” groups on Facebook, and out of 50,000 members, there are hundreds that are native Spanish speakers that will answer a quick question for me.
  • Use a PhraseBook. There are several phrasebooks available at bookstores or, if you’re frugal like me, through the library.  Becoming a Bilingual Family is great for speaking Spanish in the home (it’s written specifically for parents)
  • I use TalkBox.Mom also.  It’s a language-learning program specifically designed for moms. It contains different daily phrases, games, and challenges.
    • I’ll be perfectly honest. This program is expensive, but I honestly believe it’s the best.  It’s way better than Rosetta Stone, but the price is comparable (though it’s set up as a subscription box and each box is $80–you can suspend/cancel/ pause your subscription at any time, and it’s easy and straightforward to do).  I get this as gifts (they have a gifting option), so family members get it for me for Christmas and birthdays.
    • If you don’t want a box with all the stuff in it, they have a great phrasebook that’s only $35, and that has a ton of those same phrases used around the house.
    • There are TalkBoxes in 17 different languages, not just Spanish.
    • I also will pay for this by doing a little of my own side hustle; I mystery shop so that I can earn extra money. I spend some of that on homeschool supplies.

Just Talk!

Start by mastering your index card. Do the 3X Rule.

  1. Say it in Target Language.
  2. Say it in English.
  3. Say it in Target Language again..

After a week of that, try just saying it in the target language. See if your kids understand. If not, offer a translation. More than likely, if you say it once or more per day, after a week or two, they’ll pick it up.

Offer Proper Responses

I had one child who would fuss a bit about not being able to buckle the seat belt by themselves.  We have these conversations. “Don’t fuss. Just say, ‘help me, please.'”

Instead, I changed it to Spanish. “No, no- ‘ayudame, por favor.'” Then they repeat it.

There are so many phrases that I say on a regular basis in my home, that it’s quite easy to incorporate Spanish constantly. We just slowly transition more and more of our daily routines into Spanish.

This method works because

1) I get to learn the language along with my kids.

2) My kids have a better learning experience; nothing can replace human interaction, so even if you do Rosetta Stone or some other expensive computer program, the kids won’t be able to utilize it.

Incorporate Games in the Target Language

We play a game in my house to encourage certain commands and to have fun with the language. It’s super simple.

I say, “Camina. Camina.” (Walk. Walk.) And my kid walks toward me.

Then when I yell, “¡Corre, corre!” (Run, Run!) And my kid runs back to his seat. It’s silly, but fun and simple. And then my kid wants to be the boss and have me walk and run.  I love that because then they’re practicing speaking.

Then I added stand up and sit down to the game as well, so it’s up to four commands in the game.

We recently purchased Spanish Bingo from Half Price books, and my kids have been all over that as well!

Conclusion:

If you view learning a language as something of a project for the entire family, it can be a fun and immersive practice in the home. If you have family or friends that speak the target language, even better (we don’t happen to).  Starting small and building up by adding your target language into things you already do and say every day, over the years, can lead to quite a bit of fluency in the home.

Do you have cool resources or ideas to share? Let us know in the comments below!

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