Language Learning for Children

As a homeschooling father, language learning in the home is very important to me. As a parent, I see regular opportunities for teaching my own children how to learn a language (specifically Spanish in our home). But whether you are a homeschooling family or not there are substantial benefits to learning a second language (such as those found here: Can Bilingualism Make You More Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise?), so learning with your children can be extremely rewarding. In addition to the bonding that takes place between parent a child, language learning can open future doors that might otherwise be closed. Here are just a few ideas for language learning in the home with children of different ages:

YOUNG CHILDREN, 6-ish and under

Vocabulary Games: Just as with learning vocabulary in your primary language, similar foreign language vocabulary games can be fun and exciting for small children. These games can include things like flashcards with pictures on one side with the vocabulary word for you to read for them on the other. For more ideas, simply search online for vocabulary games and convert the games into the language of your choice. You may need to use a dictionary, but small children will love the results of your effort to create the game.

Dora/Diego type television programming: In my experience, small children absolutely love using foreign language media. This may be a limited option, but if you can find foreign language programming for children, give it a shot. This is also an excellent option for learning pronunciation.

Books for children with language focus: Here is where a membership to your local public library will be useful. There are many books for small children with a foreign language focus. Even books for very small children can be useful for introductory grammar in your new language. Browse your options and see what’s available.

Songs for children in a new language: Similar to the book idea above, songs can be very fun for small children. The key with this option is to make sure you either find a translation for it or that you get it translated (using a native speaker or Google Translate). This is also a good option for learning pronunciation.

In general, with small children it’s a good idea to stay away from structured “formal” learning. Make it fun and enjoyable and they will love it.

OLDER CHILDREN, 6-ish to 12-ish

Begin introducing structured language learning: Now it becomes more appropriate to use appropriate quantities of “structured” language learning, if that is something the child responds well to. Various textbooks for all levels can be found online if desired. In most cases you can use the internet for resources to find what you’re looking for at a reasonable price.

Begin introducing native/fluent speakers: Unless your child is very shy, he or she may benefit from conversations with native (or fluent) speakers. In general, children are beginning to feel more comfortable in this age range interacting with other adults and may benefit from vocabulary building and pronunciation. Native/fluent speakers can also provide feedback and corrections that may not be possible from the parent.

Use media with sub-titles or voice-overs: In a perfect world, this method would be best fulfilled when the child watches a movie he or she is already familiar with and using sub-titles or voice-overs. If the child is already familiar with the show, associating new words or phrases will be much easier because the context of the program is already familiar. This can be a very powerful method for learning.

Google Translate: As described in another post, Google Translate can be a powerful method of language learning. Allow the child to put content in the translator that is interesting to them and they will be much more motivated to learn. On the other hand, Google Translate can also be used to check work translated by the child. It is a very handy tool!

Concurrent learning with a parent: This is an EXCELLENT method for language learning. If you, as a parent, are willing to embark on your own language learning journey, this method has the potential to build unity between you and your child. It can also add valuable skills to both you and your child, as well as providing a partner to both of you to help encourage and motivate each other. Be brave – you can do it!

TEENS, 13-ish to adult

Foreign language websites: If the child responds well to computers (and allowed t0 explore), allow him or her to find new websites in the target language on subjects that are interesting to them. This helps to build subject matter vocabulary and increases motivation to learn significantly.

Online “pen pals”: If your teen is fond of social media, this may be a great avenue for language learning. Native speakers are often excited to find others learning their language, and are genuinely happy to converse. This is extremely easy using programs like Twitter. In fact, here is a my side of a conversation that randomly took place between a native Paraguayan and myself in Guarani:

Twitter - @TrentBooks

And here is his side…

Twitter - Paraguayan

This conversation was spontaneous, but gave me an opportunity to dust off my Guarani skills. For a language learner, this would have been a great opportunity to practice.

Foreign language books: If the teen is interested in reading there are, of course, a plethora of books in foreign languages. Both fiction and non-fiction are great for this. Often fiction are preferred for conversational language acquisition, and non-fiction are better for subject language acquisition. This is, obviously, only a generalization, but it is often the case.

Use media with sub-titles or voice-overs: Just as with older children, this option is still great for teens. Because this route tends to be more enjoyable it can often help improve motivation for language learning. It can also provide a nice break from routine if studies are more formalized.

Find and use natives/fluent speakers: This is one of the best means to learn a language as the teen grows to adulthood. The corrective feedback offered by natives and fluent speakers is much more valuable than anything that can be learned in a textbook. Natives and fluent speakers can be found through work, school, local clubs and groups, library clubs and groups, local homeschooling groups, etc. Use your networking skills and you’ll find something. As a final recourse, online “pen pals” can be a fair substitute.

Content generation: Allow your teen to explore their creativity! Things such as creative writing, music writing, short story writing, etc. can solidify language learning in a significant way because it often requires the learner to research new ways to express ideas. This can be extremely motivating! If the teen is comfortable with the idea, be sure to have a native (or fluent) speaker review it for corrective feedback. Otherwise, load it in to Google Translate to review it for accuracy.

There are many different ways to teach children a new language. In general, they will require more fun and more parental guidance as young children, but more meaningful learning and less parental guidance as they grow older. However, when it all comes down to it, you and your child are the experts in your learning. Your task is simply to use the advice that works for you, and ignore the rest.

What experiences have you had with children and language learning? Let me know in a comment below!

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2 comments
Mara Barnhart
Mara Barnhart

I want to homeschool my granddaughter who is 8 years old and is currently in 2nd grade at a public school. She has recently been diagnosed with ADD and the teachers are telling me they have 30 other children and they can't pay special attention to just one. Along with homeschooling, I believe learning one or multiple languages from a very early age will be beneficial and easier as her mind is like a sponge at this age. I will read your book and hopefully I can teach her and in turn myself how to speak at least one other language. Thanks for the inspiration. Mara

Kenny
Kenny

It's my pleasure, Mara! I'm thrilled to be of help. I certainly wish you the best with your Homeschool efforts. It's unfortunate that public school systems often don't allow for personal interaction with every child (especially those who may need a bit more to keep their active minds busy). Fortunately, Homeschool can do exactly that. Knowing what I now know about language learning, I firmly believe you are on the right track - practically every child will benefit from learning at least one foreign language. And if you learn it together, you'll bond in wonderful new ways. Best of luck to you! And please, if you have any questions about anything specific, don't hesitate to contact me. It would be an honor to play a positive role in your granddaughter's learning (or yours!). =)