We have all heard how kids are brilliant at learning new languages. Their brains are wired to do just so and the earlier they learn a new language, the greater the likelihood they will achieve native status in it. But if it’s so easy for them to learn, then why don’t more children speak multiple languages? Why do so many second and third generation children of immigrants not speak the native language of their parents?
The short answer is that it’s hard work. It may be easy for a child to learn, but being a parent who facilitates the learning takes great effort and dedication! (If you want to know some of my reasons for why I have chosen to raise my children to be bilingual, click here).
Learning languages is a complex process and there’s no easy trick to make your kids magically learn. However, I have a list of 4 things you should do when raising your children to be bilingual or multilingual. If these conditions are met, your kids are bound to learn.
Talk To Them – A Lot
Seriously, ‘til your throat hurts. If you want to raise your child(ren) to be multilingual you have to provide exposure and opportunities to use the languages. Children learn language from observing the world around them and the first place they will learn is at home. Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers and we have a great influence on what and how they will learn. So, how can you best teach your young child? You have to speak a lot. You should be talking to your child about everything they do and see and everything that you do. This is how they learn vocabulary and sentence structure. I read a great blog in which the author talks about filling up her child’s language bucket, and I think that’s a fantastic metaphor! (Check out her blog post here) If by the time you have spent a few hours with your young child your throat isn’t sore, you probably haven’t been doing your job.
Read To Them
One of the best things you can do for your child is read to them. If you read 20 minutes a day to your child, they will be exposed to 1.8 million words a year! Reading will not only help your child with the development of several languages, but it will help you practice your language skills and it will stir up topics for continued conversation. It is also a great time to connect with your child. After all, connecting is what language is all about.
One important indicator for multi-lingual success is the influence of the community on the language. If children live in a community that supports their bilingualism, they are much more likely to be successful. We need to make it necessary for children to speak with the target language, because simply using it at home with mom or dad won’t be enough.
Family, friends and playgroups are all great support groups. Increasingly you can find pre-schools, language immersion programs, or weekend language schools in the target language. Other great sources for language learning are religious and cultural centers, as many Churches, Mosques, and Temples want to preserve heritage and languages too.
You can also combine activities and interests. Try to find classes and instructors for activities that your children enjoy that are taught in the target language. Maybe a dance teacher who will work with your child in Spanish, a music teacher who might speak Mandarin, or an art instructor who will work with your child in Romanian. Research the internet and social media, because you may find someone who can combine the skills that are important to you and your child.
Music, Videos & Apps
Technology is miraculous. Let’s take advantage of it! Never before have we had access to as much music in different languages as we do now. Children, teenagers, and adults absolutely love music, so lets use it. There are also many videos and apps that are made specifically for children to learn and practice language. Some are better than others, so please do your homework. Take the time to read reviews, ask people, and even play the games. It’s also a great idea to play the games with your children or watch when they play in order to see how they are benefiting and how you can build upon what they are learning.
Technology is not a replacement for human interaction, but it can be a great support system for our language learning goals. If you are interested in learning about our Spanish Safari App, check us out!
Keep in mind, language learning is not a sprint, but a marathon. It takes a lifetime to learn, so encourage your children to be lifelong learners. You may have set-backs and perhaps you won’t be able to do all of the above, but don’t give up. The project is well worth the effort!
What conditions do you think need to be met in order for a child to learn multiple languages? I would love to hear from you in the comments!
Lead Spanish Teacher