Learning another language is one of those things that you often wish your parents had been more persistent about when you were a child. It’s like wishing they’d made you play an instrument or specialize in a sport. After all, hindsight is 20/20.
Now that the tables have turned and you are thinking about how to raise children to speak a new language, chances are you will face the same challenges your parents did. Children are reluctant to speak a new language because it’s hard, it takes work, and more often than not, there’s no real purpose for speaking it. Drawing from principles in second language research, here are five tips to introduce a new language in your home.
Incorporate the New Language in Daily Routines
Languages aren’t learned overnight. Actively participate and try to incorporate the target language into daily routines so that children can practice and master them in specific contexts. In the target language, go through bedtime routines (e.g. brushing teeth, taking a shower, changing into PJs); use high frequency phrases like “what homework do you have today?” or “what would you like for a snack?” into your conversations (note: start with yes/no questions and then move to open-ended questions); sing a bedtime song or say a bedtime prayer; start and end conversations with children when you see them after school. The ultimate goal is for children to use the language in consistent and meaningful ways.
Enrich the Household with Vocabulary Labels
Children learn languages by being immersed in print-rich environments. As children develop early literacy skills in both languages, label your household with vocabulary in both languages. This provides children with emergent reading and writing opportunities in each language, and also fosters an appreciation for bilingualism. Start by labelling rooms with common nouns. Once these are acquired, try verbs, then adjectives, and finally short phrases.
Engage Learners in Topics that Interest Them
Children can become motivated to learn new languages when they are interested in the content. Provide children with opportunities to explore topics that interest them in the target language. Take them to the library to borrow books of their choice, extend their computer time if they watch YouTube music videos in a specific language, or bring them to local restaurants to order ethnic foods and engage with native speakers of that language.
Be a Language Learning Role Model
Young kids want to be just like their parents, and they notice more than we ever give them credit for. When children see that you are learning a language, you model the importance of language learning and demonstrate how to approach challenges and frustrations. Pick up a new language and share in the daily discipline of learning vocabulary words. Work on your pronunciation and accent in front of your children and demonstrate how nerve-wracking but important it is to practice speaking with others. Do not underestimate the influence you have over your children.
Manage Expectations for Fluency and Progress
Helping a child learn a new language is no easy feat. It is a long process that requires years to master. While it is important to have high expectations of our children, we must also remember to set realistic expectations that reflect the stages in second language development. Measure a child’s success by indicators beyond just fluency. This could include vocabulary knowledge, reading or writing, confidence to speak or general interest in the language or culture. While native-like fluency is desirable, remember that most people fall short of this gold standard – and that’s ok. Recognize that children are on a path towards fluency and celebrate the many successes along the way.
These five research-informed strategies are by no means exhaustive. If you have other tips that work in your household, please do share them below!