Most teachers will agree: the best guarantee of success in language-learning is to begin when young. Children do not have the inhibitions adults have about speaking in an unfamiliar tongue – they tend to pick up new languages faster and more end up speaking it more fluently. But what are the best ways to engage your young child in learning a foreign language?
As soon as your child is learning to understand and speak their first language you can start them off on their second. Research suggests that learning two languages at once actually has a positive impact on child development! Between the ages of 3 and 7 is, therefore, an ideal time to introduce another language.
For grown-ups and children alike, the best (some would say the only) way to learn a new language is through what is called the ‘immersion’ approach. Immersion means surrounding yourself with the language, picking it up naturally; rather than going into a classroom-setting to memorise verb tables.
With children, immersion language-learning could include:
- Watching TV programs and films in the target language
- Reading books, magazines and stories in the target language
- Attending a school that teaches in the target language
- Finding individuals that speak the target language, who can interact with your kids exclusively in that language: for instance nannies, au pairs, family members or friends
Any immersion-based learning needs to be regular and frequent for it to have any tangible benefit. If your children do not feel the need to converse or pay attention in the target language, then they won’t!
Making it Fun
If adults find memorising grammatical rules dull, just think how boring they are for children! No matter how beneficial something might be for a young child, if they don’t enjoy it, they aren’t going to want to continue with it.
Learning a foreign language can be made fun by treating it as relevant, exciting, and constantly new. Go on holiday to a country where they speak the target language, or simply visit a restaurant and order food. Use actual newspaper articles instead of textbooks to read. A real supermarket food receipt is always going to be more exciting to study, than one that has been made up in a learning guide.
It will take an adult a couple of years to become fully confident in a new language. Similarly, children will not learn a new language overnight, nor will they retain it if they don’t practice what they know on a frequent basis.
As the parent, consider the long-term benefits to your children of learning the foreign language. If you believe it is important enough, consider enrolling them in a special language school or exchange program.
The longer young children continue language-learning, the more natural their immersion will seem to them, and the less effort you have to put in to maintaining their language abilities.