The Ultimate DIY Guide to Helping Your Kids Learn a Language (Part 1)
Lots of people realise that learning another language brings with it a whole heap of benefits for their children, but they don't feel able to introduce it themselves.
I've been helping my children to learn French since I started learning it myself so I am really excited to share this Ultimate Guide with you.
You don't have to be fluent to start teaching your children a language. Even as a complete beginner you can open the door to a new language for your children and give them the best chance to become a confident speaker of that language.
Want to know how it's done?
The usual advice
When I started speaking French with my children, I was just a beginner myself and looking for help and inspiration. I found two types of advice that I think can be categorised into:
The ‘get someone else to do it’ advice and the ‘what to do if you’re a native speaker’ advice.
Get someone else to do it
The ‘get someone else to do it’ typically says that if you aren’t a native speaker you need to find a Nanny, a bilingual preschool or move to another country. If that’s what you want to do, great, go for it!
But if these options aren’t for you, don’t be too quick to abandon your language project. You can do it yourself. And even if you do have a Nanny or a preschool, you might still find some of these strategies useful for doing at home or to help you keep up with your child’s new, fast growing language skills!
What to do if you’re a native
The ‘what to do if you’re a native speaker’ advice is full of amazing ideas and guidance but assumes that you are a native speaker passing on the language to your children.
A lot of the strategies that I use with my own children, and that I’m going to share with you, were created from my experiences of looking at what native speakers who are successfully raising mulitingual children are doing and adapting it to make it work for anyone, whatever their language level.
So what do you do if you’re NOT a native speaker?
This guide is packed with really fun, useful and practical ideas to help you teach your child a new language. You will find it really valuable if this is a journey you want to take with your children but I think it's fair to let you know that it’s going to take a bit of work:
You’ve got to be willing to learn the language
This doesn’t mean that you have to go and enrol yourself on the nearest language course or start spending hours a day with a grammar textbook.
It does mean that you have to be willing to make a small investment everyday to do this with your children, learning, speaking, making mistakes and having fun together.
It’s going to take a bit of time
I’m not talking about giving up all your time. In fact, it's a myth that people who are fluent in lots of languages spend all their time learning languages and not doing anything else. However, like anything else worthwhile, you have to put in the work to reap the rewards.
If you really want your children to take language learning beyond the bounds of the latest app, you’re going to have to put in small, consistent effort.
Learning to speak a language is a long term project that requires a bit of effort everyday. The good news is that there are lots of ways to fit language learning into busy lives so that it soon becomes a habit.
If you are someone who wants a ‘quick’ route to making your child bilingual, or someone who doesn’t want to get involved with their child's learning, this guide isn’t for you.
Inspire and motivate your child
If you are someone who:
- Wants to encourage and provide real motivation for their child to learn a language.
- Is learning a language and wants to share it with their child
- Loves the idea of learning a language
- Wants to bond with their child over a ongoing, shared project
- Is looking for something new, fun and really worthwhile to do with their children
- Thinks learning something alongside your child would be great
Then this guide was written for you.
Shhhh… there’s a secret!
Before we go any further though, I know there are lots of you (I’m talking to you, the self doubters) who are shaking your head right now, thinking this sounds like a nice idea but isn’t going to work for them. So there’s just something I need to tell you. Something that sometimes feels like a well kept secret.
Anyone can learn a language.
If you think that this is something you’d like to do, don’t let yourself be put off by thinking you’re not talented at languages, your accent sounds funny or that you’re too shy / embarrassed to speak in another language. You’re not too young, too old or too busy.
What have you got to lose? It might feel a bit weird and uncomfortable at first but wouldn’t it be silly to miss out on all those amazing benefits, all those fun bonding moments, all that valuable learning just because you were too scared to try?
Anyone can learn a language and anyone can help their children learn it too. And here’s the Ultimate DIY guide to get you started.
The Ultimate DIY Guide to Help your Child Learn a Language
1. Speak, Speak, Speak.
This gets my number 1 spot because it is absolutely the most important thing you can do to help your children learn a language.
While some people have a desire to learn a language in order to read literature, when most people think about words like ‘fluent’ and ‘bilingual’, they are actually talking about the person’s ability to understand and to speak. After all, language is all about communication, and the way we spend most of our time communicating is by speaking to people.
Speaking makes a language come alive; it makes it seem real and relevant and purposeful. As a learner myself, I can vouch for the fact that the most exciting part of learning a language is the first time you actually get to have a conversation with someone in that language.
Apps, songs, stories, podcasts, Youtube and language lessons are all good resources, but they should be a supplement to you speaking with you child, not a replacement.
Adam Beck, author and bilingual parenting guru who blogs over at Bilingual Monkeys tells us that there are two core conditions that need to be met for children to learn a language effectively:
1. Exposure to the language
2. Perceived need to use the language
By speaking to your children as much as you can (even if you think that isn't very much), you are giving them a huge advantage. They are getting repeated exposure to the language in a natural, integrated way that puts the language in context AND you are giving them a reason to want to use it.
So speaking = more effective learning + more motivation.
Your child might have a language tutor once a week but they are going to go nowhere fast if they don’t have opportunities to use that language in between lessons.
Oh, and don’t think that you have to be able to chat to your child non stop for 5 hours a day to make a difference. Remember this is a guide for people who can't do that.
Here's your mantra:
Little, often, repeat.
So start with a couple of simple sentences and gradually go from there. Not sure what to say? Don't worry, number 2 on the Ultimate Guide has got you covered.
2. Make it relevant.
For some reason, when we first think about teaching someone a language, there is a reflex to start with numbers, colours and naming things around the house. Like it’s an unwritten rule. Where did this come from? How many times a day does your child want to tell you what colour his fork is?
However, if your child is into Pokémon Go, you probably can’t stop them talking about how many Pokémon they have caught, where they found them, how rare they are, what their names are, what they had to do etc. So that’s where you start.
The first words you need to know are going to be unique to you and your child. There are lots of lists of the most common verbs in each language. According to one website the top 10 verbs in French are:
- To have (avoir)
- To go (aller)
- To be (être)
- To speak (parler)
- To do / make (faire)
- To put (mettre)
- To say (dire)
- To arrive (arriver)
- To come (venir)
- To take (prendre)
There is no doubt that you are going to need all these verbs but they are not necessarily the first verbs you need to know. In the example above, if you want to connect with your Pokémon Go obsessed child, you are going to find this list much more useful.
- To capture (capturer)
- To catch (attraper)
- To throw (lancer)
- To evolve (évoluer)
- To hatch (faire éclore)
- To find (trouver)
- To see (voir)
- To battle (combattre)
- To play (jouer)
If you want to go into a bit more detail about how to speak to your child in French and how to make it relevant, sign up for my How to Speak French with your Child: The Essential Beginner's Toolkit.
3. Use full sentences
A fellow language learner in one of my Facebook groups was bemoaning the other day that they could name pretty much every single thing in their house in Spanish but couldn't say a simple sentence.
Speaking in sentences gives words context and it's going to help your children internalise the grammar naturally. Let's think about how great it is to absorb grammar naturally rather than having to learn it explicitly:
This is part of a quote from the website ThoughtCo which explains the position of pronouns in a French sentence:
"Object and reflexive pronouns are usually placed between the two verbs and after the preposition (if any) that follows the conjugated verb. Adverbial pronouns are always placed in this position(...)"
Pretty complicated right? But if you hear examples repeatedly like "Je vais te le donner" (I'm going to give it to you), you automatically copy the word order.
That's because we learn language in chunks. This system of hearing sentences repeatedly in order to naturally learn the grammar of a language is now a common tool for adult language learners with programs like SaySomethingIn... and Glossika.
These programmes have been developed because most adult learners don't have the unbelievably valuable advantage that your children have - a person (YOU) who can expose them to sentences on a daily basis.
Oh, and remember, your sentences are going to be totally relevant to what your child is doing and therefore so much more meaningful and memorable.
4. Find the right resources
These will be different depending on what your child is interested in and how old they are. Loves technology and competition? Give duolingo a try. Likes memory games and learning lots of vocabulary? Try Memrise. Likes music? Learn some songs together (this could be anything from nursery rhymes to pop lyrics).
Likes stories? Get a few children's books in the language you want to learn. In fact... do this anyway! Books and stories are pretty important for helping your kids learn a language, but more about in the Part 2 of the guide.
There are a whole load of apps, websites, books and youtube videos to help with language learning and a huge quantity of them are completely free. Look around, try a few and see what works. Just because 20 people have told you that a particular app is amazing, it doesn’t mean it will be right for your child which leads us neatly onto...
5. Let your child take the lead.
Let them experiment and let them take in the lead in choosing their resources. They will be far more motivated to learn if they are using something that interests them and that they are in control of. Well known polyglot and language mentor Lýdia Machová maintains that one of the most important differences between polyglots (people who speak multiple languages) and people who are unsucessful at learning languages with traditional methods (like school) is that polyglots choose their own resources and create their own learning materials. Subsequently, they end up with study materials that suit them. These might be textbooks, podcasts, Youtube videos, Novels, Biographies, Apps, Flashcards etc.
So let your child dictate the resources.
If you buy a book they aren't very keen on, don't insist that you keep reading it because you think it's a good book for introducing this or that aspect of the language. Follow their lead. This is a great post from bilingualmonkeys about how finding what Jim Trelease calls 'a home run book' can be key for helping your child's language development.
BUT the most vital, valuable resource that a child has at any age is YOU.
6. Get involved and learn together.
Ok, so by now you can't have missed that I think you should be doing this language thing together. It's true that some resources can be used independently, but even the more independent ones are more fun when you are doing them as well.
When you have a hobby, isn’t it more fun when you can talk to someone who is doing the same thing?
That’s why, when we visit our local library we see board games groups, knitting groups, craft groups, colouring groups, book groups. It’s why you can find a group for pretty much anything on facebook.
People like to share their interests and talk about them. As children get older, they typically want to spend less time with their parents. Why not make language learning a point of connection that brings you together?
7. Know when to stop using a resource and know what you’re going to do next.
When I started learning French, I used Anki (digital flashcards) religiously for 3 months. Then I realised I was finding it a chore rather than something I was enjoying so I stopped and changed resources.
I realised that even though I still believed it was the most efficient way for me to learn vocabulary, language learning wasn’t a race and it was far more important to enjoy the process and want to carry on each day than it was to learn as many words as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Maybe your child is really excited by duolingo to start with and clocks up an impressive daily streak but after a while they find that it’s not so exciting, they are not that bothered or that they miss a few days. Perhaps you have been learning and singing some nursery rhymes in your target language with your toddler but suddenly they aren’t interested and demand that you sing ‘the wheels on the bus’ in your native language instead. That’s natural.
When we first start a project or use a new resource, it is novel and exciting. But even the most prolific language learners have periods where they feel stuck in a rut and lacking in motivation. This can quickly turn into disillusionment and abandonment of the project if you don’t recognise it and take action.
Even if your child maintains their motivation with a particular resource, eventually they will come to the end of it and you need to have some other ideas up your sleeve. Finishing a duolingo tree might be really satisfying but it doesn’t leave you fluent in a language so it can leave you feeling like ‘what now? I’ve done all this work and I still can’t really speak French!’
So what can you do when your child is getting fed up with or coming to the natural end of a particular resource?
Don’t keep pushing them to use it! Suggest a change of pace, a different resource and a different way of learning for a while. Keep it fresh and find things that keep them interested and motivated to learn.
8. Know how to use resources. (You are the game-changer)
However amazing a resource is, it isn’t going to ‘teach’ your child another language. Each resource is a tool; you need to know what to do with it in order to help you build something and they can be useless if you don’t use them properly.
This is the mistake so many people make when they enrol their child in a language class, pay for a tutor or buy a resource for teaching a particular language. They feel like they are paying money for their children to acquire a skill and therefore they just need to read the story / do the activity book / turn up to the lesson and their child will learn a language.
You are the game-changer.
You are the one that is going to make the resources effective and useful for your child.
So watching a cartoon in the target language can be a useful activity, but not if you just leave your child to passively watch it. You need to be there to help them understand it and draw out key words or phrases that you can use together.
Similarly, your child is going to get a lot less out of watching a nursery rhyme on Youtube by themselves than if you learn the words, put some actions with it and sing it together.
Reading a book is fantastic, but it's going to be MUCH more effective if you carry some of the language over into your everyday conversations.
So, how can you get the most of the resources you are using?
You mine them (as in mining for gold).
9. Mine resources for useful vocabulary and phrases.
This is probably the single most effective thing that you can do to help your children learn a language. (assuming that you're planning on speaking to them in the language of course!) It's a useful strategy however proficient you are in the language.
Beginners don't have to worry about making mistakes or being stuck for what to say when they try to speak to their child and more advanced speakers can use it to expand their child's range of vocabulary and grammatical structures.
Resources essentially are a source of the target language. Whether that is wrapped up in gamified app or whether simply a native resource like a storybook, the very, very best way to use resources is to mine them for useful vocabulary and phrases that you can use when you speak to your child.
Look at the language that is in whatever resources you are using and ask yourself if there are any words / sentences that you could use in your day-to-day conversations with your children.
Be selective. It’s unlikely that you are going to be able to work in a phrase like ‘The cat is giving the woman a skirt’ (thanks duolingo!) into your casual conversation, but these are some examples I have taken from books and cartoons that I have been able to use many times when I’m talking to my children:
‘C’est à ton tour’ - it’s your turn
‘Tu as vraiment beaucoup de courage!’ - you really have a lot of courage / you are really brave!
‘Va te-lave les mains’ - go and wash your hands
When you mine resources like this, you are getting a whole heap of advantages:
Your children are going to hear you speak the language. Don’t underestimate how powerful this is (even if you feel like a bit of an idiot the first few times you speak).
You are getting ready made ‘chunks’ of conversation. This is much more effective than learning individual words. Your children will start to be able to repeat some of the chunks, then eventually put several chunks together to make a few sentences and eventually will be able to mix and match and create their own sentences. This is how fluency is eventually achieved - one ‘chunk’ at a time.
You know that these sentences you are using in your conversations are grammatically accurate with appropriate word choices. If you’re not too confident in your grammar or if you are a beginner yourself, you can still deliver perfectly grammatical sentences to your child - awesome!
I hope you've found Part 1 of this guide useful, Part 2 is coming soon!
Want a simple, practical toolkit to get you started?
How to Speak French with your Child: The Essential Beginner Toolkit
The simple, easy to use toolkit with everything you need to start speaking to your child in French sentences in a fun, relevant and effective way to help your child learn.