Recently, I came across a statistic that took me completely by surprise:
Less than 1 percent of Americans today are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in the classroom.
One percent. I actually had to read it twice to make sure that I wasn’t skipping over another number.
As a former language teacher, I knew many students who struggled to learn a foreign language in a classroom setting. At UVA, I’d had plenty of smart and accomplished undergraduates in my classes who, although they had taken four years of high school Spanish, were still uncomfortable with basic Spanish conversation. If I’m being honest, that was also my experience as a high schooler learning French. And yet…one percent? I admit, I felt a bit of despair when I read that.
You see, I really and truly believe that language learning is a deeply enriching, even essential, part of our children’s education—I wouldn’t be writing here if I didn’t! And you know what? I suspect that you probably wouldn’t be reading this post if you didn’t share that same belief. So, how do we react when we read a statistic like that? Do we throw up our hands and just call it quits on this whole homeschool foreign language thing?
Absolutely not! And here’s why: the second part of that statistic should give us hope. That one percent? It corresponds to students who learned foreign languages in the traditional school setting. As homeschoolers, we’re not bound by that system—and in fact, our freedom from it gives us our children distinct advantages as language learners.
As I’ve thought more about what I read, I’ve been able to identify seven distinct advantages that homeschoolers have for learning foreign languages. Because of these advantages, homeschool students can be much more successful at language learning than their traditionally schooled peers, if they have the right tools and support.
So today, I’d like to share these seven advantages with you, and I hope that they’re an encouragement, whether you’re just starting out your homeschool language learning journey or whether you’ve already been at it for a few years. Here they are:
Advantage #1: Homeschooled children know how to teach themselves—and that’s the number one quality of successful language learners.
There’s no real magic bullet to language learning, but there are a few practices that make it much easier for students. At the very top of that list is having good study habits and knowing how to learn. Being able to set realistic academic goals, make consistent progress towards them, and evaluate the end result are essential skills for any language learning (and studying any subject, really). And in my experience, I’ve found that homeschool students are naturally strong in these skills, as they’ve been given the chance to take ownership of their academic program and workload.
Advantage #2: Homeschooling lets parents customize language learning to fit their children’s unique needs.
If you’ve homeschooled more than one child, you already know that no two children learn exactly the same way. Yet in the traditional classroom, language learners are expected to fit the exact same mode. Auditory learners are left behind in classrooms that are more focused on reading and writing, and analytic thinkers may be confused by language teaching that focuses on conversation without grammar practice. As much as foreign language teachers may try to balance their lesson plans, chances are that they’ll still be teaching to the middle majority of students. As homeschoolers, however, we can tailor our children’s language learning to their specific needs. We can choose the curriculum that best fits our kids, add in extra practice for the areas where they struggle, or even speed up the pace, allowing them to advance in the areas where they learn quickly. We can also make language learning fun—watching Netflix in a foreign language, hosting a foreign language Poetry Teatime, and playing multi-sensory language learning games. Given the fact that such authentic language practice is essential to student motivation, homeschoolers’ ability to do these kinds of activities as part of their language curriculum is a major plus.
Advantage #3: Homeschoolers have access to language learning technology that can be more effective than classroom teaching.
In a traditional foreign language classroom, one teacher is responsible for motivating and monitoring the progress of 18 or more students. Having been a language teacher myself, I can assure you—that’s really hard to do! No matter how many creative, conversational activities I planned, the ratio remained the same: one of me for 18 students, which meant that I could never offer my students as much practice or attention as if we had been in a smaller class setting. Homeschoolers, however, don’t have to settle for large group language instruction. They can take smaller classes through online language academies, get affordable one-on-one conversation practice with a language tutor, or participate in free online language exchanges with international students. All of these scenarios offer more concentrated and customized practice in a foreign language.
Advantage #4: Homeschooling allows families to make the crucial connection between languages and cultures.
Today’s homeschooling world is rapidly diversifying, with families from many different cultures and ethnicities now choosing to educate their children at home. With the flexibility that homeschooling provides, families can make the meaningful choice to study a language that is closely connected to their own cultural heritage—be it Spanish, Arabic, Polish, or Vietnamese.
Advantage #5: Homeschooling families can provide the essential emotional support children need when learning a language.
Learning a foreign language is not comfortable. Even if you have a linguistically gifted child, he will make embarrassing mistakes, struggle with pronunciation, and inevitably get tripped up by one grammar rule or another. Given the awkwardness of learning a foreign language, then, what better way to do it than at home, within the safe and encouraging environment of a family? I know that I’d rather make mistakes in front of people who love me and are committed to my success rather than embarrass myself in front of potentially critical peers and teachers.
Advantage #6: Homeschool families can start learning languages during the “critical period,” saving themselves time and effort later on.
While it is true that you can learn a language at any age, most researchers consider early childhood to be the best time to begin a second language. Homeschoolers have the unique opportunity of taking advantage of this “critical period” and starting language learning years before traditional school systems do—thus sparing themselves from many of the problems that result from trying to learn a language later in life. This is a truly unique benefit of homeschooling, and I am so encouraged by the many families that I have met who are pursuing language learning for littles (and if that’s something you’re interested in, here are my suggestions for starting out).
Advantage #7: Homeschooled students can choose to study the languages that most interest them, ensuring that they have real motivation for their language learning.
Instead of being confined to a few traditional options—Spanish, French, and maybe (if you’re lucky) Mandarin—your homeschool student can choose from dozens of languages to study, so she’ll be able to pick that one that truly interests her. The reluctant child may even choose to begin with a constructed language, like Klingon or Esperanto, to get comfortable with language learning before moving on to a modern language.
I don’t know about you, but these advantages make me really excited! If we believe that learning a second language is critical to our children’s growth—not just academically, but as persons—then we should be encouraged by the unique opportunities that we have as homeschoolers. We've got a great shot at this!
What do you think? Do you have any advantages to add to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!