Teaching Children Languages: Benefits & Strategies

The benefits of bilingualism has been a hot topic in recent years. Magazines, newspapers and blogs extol the fascinating ways in which the bilingual brain effortlessly manipulates more than one language at a time, working more effectively and efficiently than a monolingual one on specific types of tasks.

Thanks to their brain’s more robust executive control system (which comes from switching off the language that is not needed), bilinguals are believed to have better skills in tuning out distractions, which means that they are able to focus on what is most relevant at the moment. This can be a very important life skill. In addition, Prof. Ellen Bialystok discovered through her research on bilinguals that bilingualism helped those with Alzheimer’s continue functioning at higher cognitive levels despite having this debilitating disease. Basically, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in bilinguals didn’t show up for five or six years later than those who only spoke one language. Another indication of the robustness of the bilingual brain.

While this research is exciting and inspiring, we also need to make sure that we are careful about how we introduce young children to additional languages. Using a grammar book with a young child may not be the way to go and can even cause a child to never want to learn another language ever again – even though that same strategy may be effective for a teenager or an adult.

Ideally, a child will become bilingual because the family members speak another language in the home. This is the most natural and organic way for a child to learn more than one language. However, monolingual families who wish to introduce a new language to children can certainly do so with the aid of various language resources. The key is to find ways to expose children to a new language using methods and resources that make language learning enjoyable.

Many families are unable to enroll their children in a bilingual or international school, and Saturday schools may not be an option. For these families, introducing children to another language at home takes a special kind of commitment but is one that can have long-reaching benefits. The most important element in helping our children learn a language at home is to be consistent. Making a commitment to provide children with language exposure each and every day must be the long-term goal.

Here are some tips on how to go about this:

  • Books: Reading materials in the target language are one of the best ways to help instill children with a love for languages. One way to start is with bilingual books. This gives your children the chance to use their stronger language to understand the story before applying that understanding to their weaker language. Don’t worry about full comprehension at the beginning. Just read the stories out loud with your children in the new language over and over again and slowly things will start to make sense. Books with CDs, in which the words and/or sentences are spoken, is an ideal option for families who aren’t familiar with a language’s pronunciation. Avoid grammar books at the early stages and focus on easy books that have a lot of repetition. One example is the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? since the same sentences are used over and over again with only a few words added each time.
  • Audio: Children learn quickly when they are given opportunities to sing songs in a new language. Find CDs with songs that you and your children enjoy listening to (or that you can at least tolerate). Language learning for children shouldn’t be torture for the parents, so pick out music that the whole family can enjoy. Songs that include movement are great options as well.
    Audio books are another fantastic way to introduce children to a new language. Make sure to tailor the vocabulary and grammar to your child’s skill level. Pause the audio books along the way and discuss the stories to make sure that your child has a good understanding of what is happening so far. Aside from audio books, see if you can find audio programs for children where stories are “acted” out. These can captivate children for days on end and will really help improve their comprehension skills in the new language.
  • Videos: Although placing children alone in front of a TV or video is not the best way to teach languages, videos can be useful and enjoyable learning tools when used effectively.  YouTube.com is an excellent source for children’s videos. However, you have to make sure to pick out the videos ahead of time to avoid turning on a video that is less than optimal. Be careful to avoid caving into your child’s wishes to watch the suggested videos that appear on the sidebar or when the video has completed. Another option is to find websites for children’s TV stations in your target language. Often these will be separate websites dedicated completely to TV shows, or movies, only for children.
    Make sure to watch videos and DVDs together with your children and discuss what is being watched. Videos are only really helpful if your children are engaged in what they are watching. Some language learning will be taking place passively, but talking about the storyline while the video is on has far more linguistic benefits.
  • Conversations: The best way to help children learn a language is to expose them to situations in which the language is spoken by real, live children and adults. Take a family vacation to a country where the target language is spoken. Hire a nanny to come a few hours each day or week to speak the language with your child. Or consider hiring a private tutor for your child. You can even arrange for a teacher to meet with a whole group of children whose families are eager for them to learn the same language.  These are just a few ways that your child can listen to and use the new language in context.

Remember that language learning is a long-term adventure. It takes consistent language exposure over a long period of time to see real results. For those of you who have children in a language class, make sure that you are supporting the language at home as well. Classroom instruction in a target language is fantastic, but strengthening it at home can make all of the difference.

For those of you interested in teaching your children a new language or learning one along with your children, you might be interested in checking out Language Challenge 180 at Multilingual Living. There you can share language learning with other families just like yours!

Photo credit: Neeta Lind

What are your tips for making language learning a priority in your home?

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5 thoughts on “Teaching Children Languages: Benefits & Strategies”

  1. My son, who is entering Kinder in the fall, told us not that long ago he wished he could speak Spanish. We are fortunate that the public school he will be attending includes some Spanish immersion, more so with the upper grades than with Kinder, but at least he will be getting something. The tips provided here have given me some ways we can support him at home.

  2. Thanks for these encouraging suggestions for parents who may not be bilingual themselves. I think we wait too long in many American schools to introduce a 2nd language. But there ARE things parents can do to instill an interest in other languages!

  3. My daughter home schools and has introduced some Spanish. I have bought some bilingual puzzles and games. and books of course. The boys love it when I read to them in Spanish, whether they understand it or not. 🙂

    Thanks for these great ideas!

  4. I’m looking forward to reading books in Vietnamese with my child to help her learn the language. It’s unnatural to me to speak the language when I speak to her, so I think this will help!

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