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A friend and fellow homeschooling mom sat me down last week to ask me about language learning with her littles—what could she do to help her one-year-old and three-year-old start learning Spanish?
It’s a great question, and—as I realized during our conversation—it’s one that I get asked frequently, so I thought that I would write a post to answer it. But before I get to any strategies, I think that it’s worth debunking a few myths about language learning in early childhood. I hear versions of these pretty frequently, and chances are that you may have as well. But for those of you interested in studying foreign languages with your young children, I want you to know that not only it is possible, but it’s also worthwhile (and fun)!
Here are the top three misconceptions about teaching languages to young children that I encounter regularly:
Myth #1: It is best to wait until children are older to learn a foreign language. This is probably the most pervasive myth about language learning in our culture, and in large part, our institutionalized educational system is largely to blame for its continued existence. Given that most students don’t begin language study until middle or even high school, many Americans believe that this is naturally the best time to do so—even though language learning research says the opposite. And this is actually great news for homeschoolers—because we can study whatever subject we want whenever we want to! We don’t have to wait until the school tells us that it’s time to start learning French...we can go ahead and just start doing it if that’s what our family wants to learn.
Myth #2: Children who learn two languages at once will never learn either well. Again, patently false. The latest research actually shows that children who speak more than one language are actually more verbally adept than those who are monolingual. Now, it is true that some children who learn a second language at a young age experience what is known as a “silent period”—but this generally happens with children who are growing up in fully bilingual homes, not children who are learning a language as a homeschool student.
Myth #3: It’s not worth teaching a foreign language to a child who cannot yet read. I hear you on this one. It is much easier to study a foreign language alongside your child if he or she can already read, since it takes much of the responsibility off of you to be always in the teacher role. But young children have some distinct advantages when language learning: for example, if they start early enough, they can often attain native-like accents easily—something which is nearly impossible for anyone over age 12 to do. There is also emerging evidence that early language learning improves children’s overall cognitive function, so by starting Arabic at age 3, for example, you’re setting up your child for lifelong success.
Therefore, if you’re a parent of young children, you can feel confident that research completely backs up your choice to start studying languages in your home. And if you’re the parent of older kids, please don’t be discouraged. After all, the best time to start studying languages is NOW—and older students have their own distinct advantages in language learning, so please don’t feel like you’ve missed an opportunity if you’re starting with a 10- or 12-year-old (or later).
With that behind us, let’s talk about some ways to approach language learning with your young children. Returning to the conversation that I had with my friend, here’s the advice that I offered her: make language learning fun and make it real.
In terms of “making it fun,” it’s essential to keep in mind that young children learn best through play—and so we should be playful in our approach to learning languages with them.
Here are some ideas of playful things that you can do to introduce foreign languages to your young children:
- Have a dance party with music in the target language (here are some suggestions for French learners, Spanish learners, and German students).
- Learn finger games in the target languages and play them with your kids (here’s a book of finger games in Spanish and one in French).
- Make or buy some visual flashcards to use with your preschooler—and don’t just review. Use them to play memory or to go on a scavenger hunt for the objects pictured.
- Play any of these five no-prep games with a picture dictionary.
- Check out some board books from the library and read through them (you can find our community’s favorites in the Language Learning At Home resource library).
- Watch some children’s television in the target language (Word Party and Pocoyo are two preschool-appropriate Netflix programs that have very simple language and are available in many languages, including with subtitles).
Young children are also absorbing all of the information around them and are very concrete learners—hence my second piece of advice to “make it real.” Young children benefit from significant experiences that put all of their learning in context—so show them how they can use the new language is everyday life! Do you have a friendly grocery store clerk who might be willing to chat briefly with your child in his/her native language? Are their members of your church who your child can share his or her learning with? Is there a foreign language storytime at your local library that you can participate in? We’ve seen the impact that this has made on our older son—who went from being a child who refused to speak Spanish (even though we’re a bilingual family) to one who now embraces his bilingual identity (most of the time). In fact, we just got back from a visit to our Spanish-speaking dentist, where he and my son spoke only Spanish the entire time. By surrounding him with other Spanish-speakers, we’re trying to show him how his language skills are practically, immediately useful for making new friends and communicating with others and that’s made a big difference in both his confidence and his willingness to use his Spanish with others.
Aside from the ideas I’ve shared above, you might consider these activities to help make language learning “real” to your child:
- Visit the “ethnic foods” aisle in your grocery store and read the labels aloud to make the connection between language and culture (food).
- Collect absolutely any print materials in the target language—signs, newspapers, flyers, bus schedules, etc.—and read them aloud to your child.
- Make-believe! Even if you have only a basic command of the language, you can make-believe scenarios using the vocabulary you do know. Use food vocabulary to play “chef” or sports vocabulary while playing in the backyard. Even labeling objects in the target language will be helpful to you.
- Speaking of labeling, use a physical label machine to label household objects and learn that new vocabulary. Then use those words in your daily interactions.
How do you study foreign languages with your young children—what are some of your favorite activities and strategies? I’d love if you would share them here!