Despite the fact that, being British, I shouldn’t be able to speak more than just English (and even that not very well- according to some!), I am a strong believer in multiple language learning. We all know that kids absorb languages quickly (see my previous post: What is the best age to start learning a second language?) and seemingly more easily than adults, so logically we should start at an early age. As parents it’s our responsibility to help and nurture the innate ability, but it doesn’t always come naturally to us, so here is my baker’s dozen of tips for teaching children a second language.
NB. While I write this I think about my forays into language learning, and whether it’s appropriate for a non- native speaker to teach a language (non- professionally- I have many friends who teach a foreign language, but they have training and experience, and a certain level of language knowledge which I don’t). I have often questioned the idea, as I would myself hate to teach my kids bad grammar or pronunciation. But, within my limits I am happy speaking a smattering of German, French or Spanish with my two. I believe it opens their ears and makes them more receptive, and hopefully, as in my case when I was a child, encourages them to want to learn more. (But more about this later… I think this topic deserves it’s own post.)
1. Learning should be fun. The more fun it is to learn a language, the more a child will want to stay with it. Learning while playing is the best way to learn because it creates emotional attachments, and emotion is the door to learning. Even if it’s only saying the words of the game you’re playing in both your mother tongue and the second language, these words will be absorbed and repeated at a later date.
2. Learn by doing. Play at shop keeping, make a snack, or take a walk. While you are interacting with your children during these activities, speak a second or third language. As above, keep it fun!
3. Learn in a relaxed but challenging state. Never stress a child. Current research shows that 80 percent of learning problems are stress related.
4. Reinforce with pictures and sounds. Say the sounds of the language that accompany a picture in a playful way. For example, “A is for apple”. Do it with Sesame Street too- they teamed up with Tilly and the Wall for a fun musical version.
5. Learn with music and rhythm. Music is one way to use the whole brain. Do you still remember the songs you learned in early childhood? Most people do because lyrics combined with music are easier to learn. My daughter sings O Tannenbaum to me on a regular basis- she learnt it at Kindy and I couldn’t for the life of me sing it with her, but she’s got it verbatim!
6. Learn with lots of movement—use the body and the mind together. The brain and the body are one. However, the traditional education system encourages students to sit all day long. Now we know that we learn more when we move as we learn. Encourage children to dance and move to the rhythm when learning a second or third language. Sing songs with actions.
7. Learn by talking to each other. Having bigger kids practice a language by talking to each other over a meal, for example, is a great way to learn.
8. Link numbers and words in a playful way.”The more you link, the more you learn”. Anything can be linked when learning a second language, including numbers and new vocabulary words. For example, reciting the numbers from one to ten in Spanish in rhythm is a fun way to begin language learning.
9. Learn by touching. Do little finger rhymes in a second language. While you sing or say “Itsy, bitsy spider” have the fingers of each hand touch another finger, as if the spider is climbing. Peter and Paul has actions, and so does This Little Piggy… there are versions in other languages too!
10. Learn by tasting. Food is such an important part of our lives. Have youngsters celebrate language learning by eating foods and saying the food name in the new language.
11. Learn by smelling. Play smelling games. Hide objects in a sack, and have your child guess what is inside. Encourage them to say the new word in the language they are learning.
12. Use the whole world as your classroom. Turn every outing into a learning experience. You can learn a new language while counting oranges; comparing leaves; classifying different birds, food, or anything that interests your child.
13. Learn by reflecting. It is important to let children take time to “simmer.” There is a dormant stage to language learning. First children absorb the language. Later they begin to speak.
For more information along these lines look at the work done by Dryden & Vos (1997), Dryden & Rose (1995), Brewer & Campbell (1998), and Krashen (1992).