Has your homeschool honeymoon already ended this year?
The first day celebrations are over, the math problems are getting more complicated, and as the academic year shifts into full gear, you might find your language learner struggling to keep up.
Are you wondering what’s going on?
If you’re experiencing a language learning setback, there might be a few reasons why. Let’s take a look at some of the most common obstacles that language learners face—and some practical suggestions for how to overcome them.
The good news: struggle is normal
Before I even share these reasons, I’d like to give you a word of encouragement. I’ve said this before, and I think it bears frequent repeating: language learning is hard. It requires a good deal of diligence and motivation, as well as creativity and concentration. If your child is struggling, know that that is actually to be expected. Very few people—not even the geniuses among us—learn a new language without some degree of difficulty.
I’m speaking from experience here, because I’ve seen this in my own life! Ironically, it was my own difficulties learning French that led me to start studying Spanish….which, ten years later, led me to getting a PhD in that subject! Along the way, I learned how to use my mistakes as a chance to learn myself something new—whether it was how to improve my pronunciation or expand my own vocabulary with flashcard games.
As much as possible, I encourage you to think of your child’s challenges in the same way. Whatever struggle you’re facing, know that this is not just a growth opportunity for your child, but also for you. As you support your child’s language learning, you’ll grow in your own understanding of how he/she learns, generally speaking—and that’s knowledge that you can apply for the rest of your child’s life!
Four common challenges for language learners
That said, here are some of the most common challenges that I’ve seen homeschool language learners face:
A lack of motivation;
A lack of consistent practice time;
A curriculum mis-match; and
A learning difference.
Do you suspect that your child might be battling one of these? Well, read on.
Challenge #1: A lack of motivation
There are a few symptoms of this particular problem: your child refuses to speak the target language (even when you know she can), your child continually whines when it’s time for language study, or, as in my case, your child might ask (repeatedly) why he has to learn a foreign language when everyone around him speaks English.
The challenge here is to get your kids to make the connection between language learning and enjoyment—and, if you can, between language learning and usefulness.
If your language learning feels like a slog, chances are that you need to inject a bit of fun into it. There’s a few ways to do this. You might consider introducing television shows in the target language to your homeschool, celebrating a poetry teatime in the target language, or rewarding your language learner with some time on a foreign language app.
If your child is unconvinced of the usefulness of learning a language—something that is also important to student motivation—you might take a different approach. Perhaps you could do a unit study on one of the cultures that speaks your target language or visit a community center to meet native speakers of that language.
Challenge #2: A lack of consistent practice time
Do you have time set aside, at least 4 days a week (preferably 5), when your child can practice the target language?
If your answer to that question is no, it’s likely that your child is struggling simply for want of practice. Remember that language learning is like learning to play a musical instrument or learning math—it is a skill that requires frequent, intentional practice. If you want your child to develop speaking and listening skills in particular, once-a-week language study simply isn’t enough.
If your schedule is needing some tweaks to give your child more practice, you can walk through these steps for scheduling foreign language practice in your homeschool. The more exposure to the target language, the better, so if you can, consider also ways that you can create an immersive language environment in your homeschool and how you can practice the target language in small pockets of time. While I am a huge proponent of scheduling daily language practice—as in, having an official time on the agenda—those short practice sessions do make a big difference!
Challenge #3: A curriculum mis-match
A curriculum mis-match is, I think, the most tempting explanation for language learning problems. With so many homeschool foreign language curricula on the market, it’s easy to blame ourselves. We think that we made a wrong choice and we simply need to find the “right” curriculum to help our child learn a new language.
And yet, I would encourage you to exercise caution with this one. While there are true curriculum mis-matches, I’ve found that a lack of motivation and a lack of practice time really are much more common explanations for language learning struggles.
So, how do you know if your child is truly using the wrong curriculum? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Is my child using a mostly hands-off curriculum when he/she needs more accountability? Some children (particularly high school aged and above) can learn a language from video-heavy curricula, but younger children often (if not always) need another human being alongside them.
Am I using an actual curriculum? Language learning apps like Duolingo and Mango Languages can be useful, but they lack the systematic scope and sequence of a traditional curriculum—which is why I recommend them only as supplemental tools.
Is my child’s curriculum engaging enough? If the curriculum you’re using is as dry as sawdust—and your child has said as much—it might be worth making a switch. No, not everything that you do in your homeschool needs to be “entertaining,” but given all of the hard work that language learning requires, it’s worth trying to find a style that works for your child.
Challenge #4: A learning difference
Kids experiencing dyslexia, dysgraphia, and/or auditory processing disorders will have a harder time learning foreign languages. While I don’t want to create anxiety for any parent, if your child is struggling to learn a language and you’ve ruled out all of the above, it might be time for some testing.
I can testify to this with my own past experience: while teaching undergraduate Spanish, I once had a student who consistently failed my listening quizzes, although he performed excellently on written assignments and tests. After meeting for extra tutoring, changing his location in my classroom, and trying a number of other work-arounds, I finally decided to send him for testing at our university’s learning center. To the great surprise of both my student and I, his testing revealed some important information: he was deaf in one ear! He had been living with reduced hearing for years and didn’t even realize that he got by in daily life mostly by reading lips—he thought that was how everybody engaged in conversation. I immediately exempted him from listening quizzes and he excelled in the class.
All this to say: if your child has a documented learning disability and is struggling to learn a foreign language, you might want to consider making some accommodations in his/her language study. If your child is struggling in foreign language and other linguistic areas, this challenge might point for the need for some expert advice. If you’d like to read more about the specific challenges that children with learning differences face in learning a foreign language, here is a great summary.
If you find your child struggling with language learning this year, I hope that this post has given you some ideas for how to get back on track. And don’t forget—you’re not alone in this! If you would like to talk more about the challenges your family is facing and get some friendly advice from other homeschooling families who have been there, head on over to our Facebook group, where we’ll be talking candidly on this exact subject this week.