Tips for teaching your child a second language

By | May 5, 2020

We increasingly live in a multilingual world where knowing more than one language can have great benefits for both career and social life, not to mention the other perks. With the large number of people knowing two or more languages means there are many parents who will want to teach their children more than one language.

For parents who are bilingual, especially if both parents know the same second language fluently, the basic strategy for teaching young children is straightforward: simply use that language exclusively at home. However, for those where one or both parents know a second language but are not fluent enough to use it exclusively, this poses a challenge for the best way to integrate a second language into their child’s life.

In this article I’ll discuss some thoughts I have about introducing and using a second language, as well as give some tips that I hope can help out some parents in such a situation.

Appropriate strategies for teaching languages to children vary greatly by age, but I will be speaking mostly in a general sense in this article, with a slight emphasis on younger children (roughly 10 years or younger).

While this discussion will apply to any secondary language, I’ll be using Japanese as in example in some places for convenience.

Consider Language Goals

Just like when studying a language yourself, it’s a good idea to be cognizant of the language goals you will have for your child before introducing a second language. However, rather than phrasing these in terms of must-achieve hard milestones, I recommend focusing on “soft” goals that will help you guide your child’s language study. Some ideas for soft goals are:

  • Learn to read basic children’s books in Japanese
  • Memorize hiragana, including both pronunciation and reading of the characters (this isn’t very exciting in and of itself, but it is an important foundational goal for other more advanced goals)
  • Learn to have simple conversations with a Japanese-speaking relative
  • Learn to be able to use and understand basic phrases for daily life (bare minimum needed for survival) 
  • Learn to be able to understand basic children’s anime series in Japanese

When introducing a second language in a non-exclusive way, you will have limited time so it’s best to avoid overly broad goals such as “Learn to read, write, listen, and speak Japanese fluently”. 

The Only Real Goal

While I did mention goals above, I wanted to take a step back and say that I feel there is only really one goal that is truly important in the process of introducing a second language to a child: enabling that child to enjoy learning the language and develop sufficient interest such that they are motivated to continue learning at home, and eventually studying on their own.

No matter how much parents try to force a child to learn a secondary language, eventually the child will grow up and have freedom to do whatever they want. Even before they leave the house, whenever they are in a setting where parents are not actively monitoring (ex: at school), children can choose what language they speak with others (assuming there are people around who speak multiple languages). So the most a parent can really do is help guide their child’s language development in a positive and enjoyable way. 

If, on the other hand, a parent tries to force a secondary language on a child, it is likely they will eventually rebel against that, or at least grow a dislike of the language such that they lose the desire to continue study on their own. 

One thing I’ve noticed in my own parenting experiences is that children can have amazing potential as to what they can do, including learning a second language quickly at a young age. However, just because they can do something doesn’t mean they want to. I’ve discovered that sometimes the hard part is not teaching the material itself, but it’s maintaining the child’s interest, and perhaps this is a lesson that extends to teaching other children beyond one’s own son or daughter.

What Children do Best

One thing that should drive your use of a second language is knowing what children are especially good at, or conversely what adults are especially bad at.

While there are great differences between individuals, I think it’s safe to say that, on average, the earlier a child begins to learn a second language, the more chances they are to be completely fluent when they are an adult. I haven’t studied this extensively, but from what I have seen there are two main parts of language that are best learned young.

The first is pronunciation. I’ve read of at least one study that showed children before a certain age were able to differentiate two similar sounds, whereas after that age differentiation becomes much more difficult. I believe this has the potential to also apply to making the various sounds required for fluent speech, including vowels, consonants, pitch inflection, and connecting several sounds together naturally (something that is often overlooked when learning pronunciation).

Because of that, I feel that simply allowing a child to listen to native speakers speaking in the secondary language is very important, as is eventually having the child try to repeat words that they hear in order to learn how to move their mouth, throat, tongue, etc. I think it’s more important than to have the child get a good foundation with listening and speaking basic words than trying to go overboard with too many vocabulary words, since those can always be learned in later years.

The other area that children seem to be especially good at is learning grammar. Once in a book by a famous linguist (I think it was “The Language Instinct”) I remember reading that children actually have the capability to create their own grammar when they are young. Also, I have noticed that adults tend to learn more in terms of specific grammar rules, whereas children learn implicitly, almost by instinct, as their brains are more able to figure out how grammar works without explicitly thinking about rules and patterns. For Japanese, this means tricky areas like the differentiation between the “wa” and “ga” particles.

Fortunately, I think simply exposing a child to many types of sentences, both written and spoken, is enough to have their brains start developing an implicit understanding (or intuition) about the grammar of a second language. From what I have seen, even for a first language children typically listen for a long period of time before actually making words and sentences themselves, and I think during this gestation period there is a lot more happening than is easily apparent.

Linguistic Context Switching

One thing it seems that humans are quite skilled at is switching contexts between one language and other. An example that always stands out to me is when a friend of mine suddenly gained an accent when speaking to his parents, without him even being aware of this. Children seem especially good at this sort of linguistic context switching, which can involve complex factors (things like who is present, what languages they are most comfortable with, etc.).

For parents that can speak a secondary language exclusively with their child, this creates a clear-cut context for the child, although there will still be gray areas like when speaking in groups with other people.

But for parents that are only introducing a language “part-time”, it’s a bit trickier to establish the context for kids to grasp on to. Children can figure out what language to speak if they are given enough information, but if a language is not used in a structured way at home the child may be left confused. 

For example, if you mention random words in Japanese to your son or daughter at random times, they may be able to memorize them, but their mind is never completely switching to learn to think, and eventually construct sentences, in that language. Because of this, I think it’s best for parents to try and set times and situations where a secondary language is typically used so children can learn to make the switch to thinking in that language when the right conditions are met.

Having a relative that doesn’t speak their primary language, and only the secondary language is a great way to set context. But other ideas are setting aside a certain time, like at night before going to bed, or when going on walks. During reading time, you can consistently use books in the secondary language, although you probably still want to set aside time to read in their primary language. You can even make things a little less formal, and pick times each day when you say, “Let’s speak in Japanese now for a few minutes, OK?”, or try to play a game where you alternately ask questions and answer them in the secondary language.

Think Like Your Child

When introducing a secondary language, as I mentioned earlier one of the most important things is enjoying the experience. This is especially true during the initial stages, when the child is going to form an opinion about whether something is enjoyable and worth their attention. 

I feel that the easiest way to add fun to language learning is to expose the child to media in the secondary language: games, cartoons (anime in the case of Japanese), and kids books. 

If you get the child to come back to an activity involving a second language not because you are forcing them, but because they honestly enjoy it, you are on the road to developing good habits about language learning that will hopefully last for decades, if not a lifetime.

Even if you don’t speak the secondary language exclusively at home, you can make entertainment options exclusive in the sense that the child will have to be exposed to that language in order to partake in the activity. One idea I have tried at home is buying Pokemon cards in Japanese to promote reading in Japanese, as well as some simple arithmetic.

Learn With Your Child

For many parents reading this article you may still be in the early stages of learning the secondary language in question. Since your main goal is piquing your child’s interest, you don’t have to be fluent to start introducing the language at home. (Having said that, long term exposure to incorrect pronunciation and grammar can have a negative effect, so try to make sure the child is exposed to native speakers on a frequent basis.)

If you can find simple material that you can learn together with your child, it will make it more enjoyable for both of you. From the point of view of the child, if they feel like they are on even ground it will be easier to stay involved, as opposed to when they are behind the parent’s level from the get-go.

One idea is to use flashcards for simple vocabulary words, characters, or sentences. For Japanese, Kumon has a good series of cards (see details here) that you may be able to find in Japanese bookstores outside of Japan (like Kinokuniya).

Although learning a massive number of vocabulary words themselves is not the most important thing for children, some vocab is required for basic everyday speech, and doing fun activities like these can also help build a positive relationship with your child in the context of language learning.

Of course, even if you are quite familiar with the material you decide to study with your child, you can pretend to be on their same level. But that isn’t a good long-term practice, at least in terms of your enjoyment (which is also important).

Traveling to Pique Interest

Traveling to a country where the language you are studying is spoken as a primary language (like going to Japan if you study Japanese) can be a great experience for both you and your child. This exposes the child to not only the language, where they can be exposed to many native speakers, but also the culture of that country.

Furthermore, if the child has a positive experience traveling they will want to return, and this can motivate continued language study for the secondary language. It gives the child a concrete reason to understand why they are learning this language, as opposed to just doing it because their parents want them to.

Even if you are not able to travel to an applicable country in the short term, taking your child to local areas related to that culture will still help grow their interest. This can include places like cultural centers, bookstores, or even supermarkets. Children are often picky about food, but getting a child to learn about the food culture of another country is one way to increase the chances in learning the secondary language. 

Classes and Tutoring

If neither parent is fluent in the language in question then it will be difficult for your child to progress beyond a certain point. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to consider having your child learn the secondary language via one of more formal, external sources, including tutors, classes, or even immersion schools. 

These sorts of structured activities are good forums for the context switching I mentioned earlier, and will help your child learn to get into the mode of thinking and speaking in the secondary language, even if they don’t do that at home. If the child has positive experiences with teachers that will reinforce their desire to want to spend more time with that person and learn more.

Even if you are fluent or near-fluent in the secondary language in question, I think considering external teaching is a good idea because as kids get older it’s more difficult to keep them speaking the secondary language at home.

Use the Language Around the Child

Regardless of your ability in the secondary language, I would suggest trying to set aside time to speak in the language in front of your child. This can be in the form of occasional conversations with your partner (even if they are not perfect), with the waitstaff in a restaurant, or with a relative that speaks that language. By doing this, you give your child motivation to understand what you are saying, even if they are not directly involved in the conversation. 

While perhaps not as effective, you can do this in a more passive way by simply consuming media in the secondary language yourself, whether that is reading a novel or watching a movie. If you child happens to be in the same room, they may see you and wonder what you are doing, and that may lead to natural interest in the language.

However, if you are not using the language exclusively (at least in a certain environment like at home), I wouldn’t recommend using the second language to tell the child important things in daily life. While it could motivate them to figure out what is being said, there is a chance something important will not be communicated to the child. 

Use Kid Gloves

You’ve probably noticed that making things fun and leaving a good impression on your child during language learning is a common theme throughout this article. To speak a little bit more about that, I would caution that when you are working with your child, don’t use the same strictness or seriousness you are using in your own language.

For example you might be the type of person who is super picky about grammar, pronunciation, or studying X hours a day. In fact, much of what I advocate on this blog is more of the “hard knocks” style, in terms of trying to immerse yourself in a language, avoiding use of subtitles (on first watch), and trying to think in the secondary language instead of translating back and forth. With children, too many rules or restrictions can cause frustration and backfire, though sometimes it may take days or weeks until you realize your son or daughter was forcing themselves to do something not enjoyable for your sake.

Some techniques that I advocate for adult learners, like working towards increasing your lexicon of grammar patterns, may be mostly unnecessary for young children because of how they can learn without being given explicit rules. (I think adults can do this too, but it takes much longer and it becomes harder as you get older.)

Also, part of the ‘kid gloves’ approach is setting limits on how much time you are spending on language learning, at least until you can tell with confidence whether they are really enjoying themselves or just playing along.

How to Begin?

It’s hard to give a one-fits-all suggestion here, but I would say your child’s first encounter with a secondary language should be short, fun, and memorable. One idea is to read a very short children’s book to them in the secondary language (5-10 minutes max), and then talk about what it means. Another is to show them an exciting or funny cartoon in that language (10-20 minutes or less). 

When your child is interacting with the second language, try to gauge their interest. Are they focused and eager, or distracted and bored? Keep in mind that when introducing a second language to children, it’s OK to decide to wait to introduce it a little later. The advantages that children have when learning languages don’t go away in weeks or even months.

Finally, you could just teach them a simple greeting (ex: “Konnichi wa”) and see if they can memorize, then use it to greet each other the following day. If that goes well you can move onto other greetings (like “good night”, etc.) and eventually onto simple words that can be used in daily life (“I’m tired”, etc.) This approach can work for initial exposure, but it lacks the context switching I alluded to earlier, so you can try to gradually work that into your weekly schedule at home.

Closing Thoughts

I originally intended on writing a list of simple tips for parents wanting to teach their child a second language, but the article turned into more of a discussion about my thoughts on various related topics with some hints interspersed here and there. But I’m satisfied with the result, because good parenting itself is not a series of simple steps; rather, it requires a combination of knowledge and intuition, and ultimately is about relationship building and mutual understanding.

I hope parents considering introducing a second language to their child have learned something from this article, and I wish you the best of luck in both introducing a second language and with parenting in general.

If you liked this article, here is one that is about a related topic: strategies for guiding a child to speak in a foreign language.

(Note: featured image of brother and sister studying together taken from Pexels.com)

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