We have all at one point or another learnt a foreign language- at school, for a trip abroad, because of a crush on someone… and then months later realised that we can no longer speak a word of said language. How depressing is that? All that time and effort wasted on something we couldn’t even hang on to. And so with our kids, is it worth the time they spend learning another language if in the long run they might never use or need that language again?
Obviously this topic is not related to bilingual kids- those whose parents speak different languages, and so will always have recourse to those languages. Our situation is different- we are a monolingual, English- speaking family bringing up 2 children in Austria, and so teaching them (not ourselves I hasten to add) German. However, it is more than likely that we will move to live in another country sometime in the future- a country where neither English nor German is spoken. So why bother with German? Won’t they forget it and learn the new language instead? My friend’s daughter learned Spanish from their babysitter for a year and could speak and understand it, at a 2- year old level. Now that the babysitter has moved on and she has no Spanish input, she does not remember it at all. How does that work? Does learning a language for only a year or so have any benefits (obviously we hope that it does).
Numerous studies show that speaking a second language boosts cognitive, memory, and listening skills. Research published in Psychological Science suggests that simply thinking in a foreign language helps people make quicker and better life decisions. Additionally, a study by the College Entrance Examination Board reports a direct correlation between foreign language study and high school examination scores. People who speak a foreign language often enjoy better career prospects and higher standards of living. And there are even health benefits — recent research from the University of Chicago suggests that a second language also helps prevent dementia later in life.
A lot of these are facts that we have read about before. The important part is how to keep a language once your child has started to learn it, and here are some tips.
- The “secret” to any retention is constantly doing it! Practice makes perfect, and this is the same for language learning. Exposure of any kind is essential. Encourage your kids to read, watch tv, and speak in the language as much as possible. As painful as it is, it will help.
- A language needs to be needed. If a child knows that they can use their other language all the time, they will chose the lazy option and stick to it. A Romanian friend of mine told me how her sons refuse to speak to her in Romanian, as they know she speaks German and English- both of which they find easier and prefer. If you can hide your own knowledge of other languages from your kids, at least for a few years, they’ll see the need to speak the language.
- Make persistent use of music in your target language. Playing music regularly in the background, when your children are at home, or in the car, will quickly increase their input. You may even find your children starting to sing along to a catchy song! I can still remember songs that I learnt back when I was a kid… it’s amazing how the combination of music and lyrics is easier to remember.
- We’ve all seen the last scene of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where Ian (played by John Corbett) is walking his complaining daughter to Greek school. Well, it works. Although your kids might not like it, Saturday school is a great idea if there is no way for you to increase the need or exposure in another way. And they get to meet other kids who also are learning the language, slowly building their interest.
- Hire a foreign au-pair, preferably a chatty one! You and he/ she can have conversations in the target language, so your kids hear the language more, and they will learn different vocabulary from that which they would learn at school. “Pick up your socks” or “Have you brushed your teeth yet?” don’t sound like much, but they will make a difference later on in life.