Children have the ability to be world travelers in their brains — or easily gain proficiency in a foreign language — until the age of seven; however, the first critical period in language development is between six and 12 months. In this period, babies absorb the sounds that they are surrounded by and learn to distinguish between different phonemes, or auditory units of language (e.g., an “s” sound, a “sh” sound, and so on). By exposing a child to another language in this early stage of life, you can teach a child’s brain to be able identify differences between the sounds of a language that a non-native speaker would have difficulty perceiving or articulating.
Once you decide you want to incorporate a foreign language into your child’s life, there are a range of strategies you can employ. Below are five techniques that work well if you (or others in your household) speak a foreign language, as well as five techniques for monolingual parents and caregivers.
What You Can Do as a Parent in a Bilingual or Multilingual Home
You can teach your child a second language with the same methods that you use to reinforce a first language. The more that you use a second language in your home, the more fluent your child will become. As Colin Baker writes in the pamphlet Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, “language among young children is caught rather than taught.”
Here are five techniques, drawn from our YPW Spanish Immersion School teachers, that you can use to incorporate a foreign language into your child’s routine.
1. Teach through repetition.
Children learn through repetition and active engagement with another language. You can apply this technique at home by doing an activity in English, and then doing the same activity in a second language a few days later. For instance, if you are making an egg-carton train with your child, the first time you would emphasize the vocabulary for train, wheel, egg, and various colors in English. Later, you could do the same activity and express the same words in a second language.
2. Use big gestures and physical demonstrations.
Our Spanish Immersion teaching experience shows that pairing nonverbal communication with vocabulary words helps children comprehend language. When your child can associate your exaggerated and expressive gestures, facial expressions, and physical demonstrations with vocabulary, she is more likely to comprehend and remember those terms. If you ever wanted to test your improv comedy skills, now is your chance!
3. Create a positive learning environment.
Second-language learners need support and encouragement to engage in social interactions. Parents and teachers should help children who are struggling to communicate by providing a prompt (e.g., “Ask your sister, ‘Can I have the scissors, please?’”) and using open-ended questions, such as those that start with the words why or how, to elicit complex responses.
4. Teach through engaging activities.
In a chapter in the widely-used book for educating bilingual children, “Educating Second Language Children: The Whole Child, the Whole Curriculum, the Whole Community,” Mimi Met argues that the challenge of teaching a new language is providing experiences that are both cognitively demanding and content-rich. Too often, undemanding activities, like flipping through flashcards, are used to teach language. It is important to design activities that are cognitively engaging so that your child will experience language and not just be exposed to it through effortless repetition. For example, if you would like to go over weather vocabulary with your child, you should incorporate it into a science experiment in which you make a rainbow.
5. Do your own play-by-play.
In his book, “One Child, Two Languages,” Patton Tabors reports that having a running commentary in a second language is a great way to immerse a child in that second language. Talk out daily routines and activities, as you do them, in a second language. For example, while you are making dinner, have a running commentary of all of your actions, such as, “I am walking to the refrigerator,” and “I am slicing an onion.” Your child will pick up these language cues from associating that activity with the vocabulary.
What You Can Do as a Parent in a Monolingual Home
It’s relatively easy to incorporate second-language learning when you already speak a second language. But monolingual parents can teach their young children foreign languages, as well. Here are five techniques that you can employ.
1. Have your child spend time with a native speaker.
In a different study by Patricia Kuhl called “Foreign-Language Experience in Infancy: Effects of Short-Term Exposure and Social Interaction on Phonetic Learning,” nine-month-old children were first exposed to Mandarin in different forms: via audio clips, videos, and interactions with native speakers. The researchers found that within 12 sessions (totaling five hours), the children exposed to Mandarin through social interactions had the same level of phonetic recognition of Mandarin sounds as infants who had been raised in Taiwan their entire lives. Meanwhile, the infants who had only been exposed to the language through audio or video did not make significant language gains.
Kuhl and her colleagues hypothesize that this is because interactions with a live person provided the children with social cues that held their attention in a way that less dynamic formats, such as audio recordings and DVDs, did not.
Contact a bilingual family member, friend, neighbor, or caretaker who can spend time with your child. You can set up playdates or excursions in which this person can speak to your child in the target language, thus creating a truly immersive experience.
2. Find media in another language.
While using audio or video media to learn a language may be less effective than in-person interactions, it is a more feasible option that can allow your child to gain exposure to foreign language acquisition. Find music in a foreign language that both you and your child can enjoy together.
3. Use kid-friendly language-learning software.
There are dozens of programs out there that help young learners immerse themselves in another language. Early Lingo, which offers lessons in Spanish, French, Arabic, and Japanese, among others. Other options that parents can look into are Little Pim and Gus on the Go.
4. Find extracurriculars in a foreign language.
If you are having difficulty finding native speakers in your community, you can consider enrolling your child in an extracurricular activity in which she can be exposed to a foreign language. This may take the shape of formalized lessons with a tutor, or of activities that just happen to take place in another language.
5. Learn the language together.
While this may be the most time-consuming option of all, if you have the time and are interested in learning a foreign language, you can make this a team effort. Through adult courses or language-learning programs like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, you can master a language and slowly teach your child what you learn. It may be the longest route, but it is one that will have you and your child bonding through your mutual learning.
Once you incorporate language-learning into your and your child’s routine, you are likely to see new linguistic and cognitive development.
Buena suerte, buona fortuna, bonne chance, viel Glück, удачи, καλή τύχη, 幸運!
An alternative option outside the home is to send your child to:
YPW Spanish Immersion School