I have studied language as an adult. I have studied abroad twice. I have learned both Spanish and German.
However, I have never learned one well enough to teach my child a second language. In addition to the benefits of brain development, there is a bigger reason I want my child to speak two languages.
When I was abroad, I learned that by not (really) knowing a second language, there were so many missed opportunities to make friends and truly learn a second culture. There is always a barrier until you reach a certain level in the second language.
Because I was an adult, I would need to spend so much more time learning and would still never reach the level a child could. Therefore, I set off to teach my kids a second language, so they have a better chance of becoming truly fluent as adults.
For parents that speak the second language, they just have to speak it. Lucky them. For those who don’t speak a second language, we could hire a nanny who speaks a second language, but that requires a lot of money (that I don’t have).
For those of us that can only speak one language, it is trickier but totally do-able. Here is how I taught my child a second language.
Start as early as possible
I’m guessing if you are reading this, then you know this.
I knew this but I still waited until my child was 3. I just didn’t understand how it would help if she wasn’t speaking. However, if you do have a baby, getting them exposed to the natural flow and sounds of the language is key. I will talk more about how to do that later.
But the point here is the best time to start is before they are saying their first word. However, if your child is 3, 5, 7 etc., any progress towards a language in elementary school is critical.
Basically, what I am saying is start today, don’t wait.
There are three main key steps to a language
In order to speak in a language fluently you want to focus on the following:
- Gain vocabulary
- Learn flow and pronunciation
- Sentence structure
These are very important for you to speak, understand and read in another language. The more opportunities you find for your child to gain these three things, the easier time they will have to continue learning the language.
Now unless you can put them in an immersive environment, they won’t become fluent overnight. Don’t expect that. Instead your goal should be continued improvement in their second language. As long as they are acquiring the language as a child, they will be able to reach a high level of fluency that you can’t reach as an adult.
Therefore, the more work you put in now, the better the outcome. So now, how to gain those three key steps without knowing the language?
Gain vocabulary: A Word of the Day
I thought that because I didn’t speak it, I couldn’t teach her anything. This was a big lesson for me and a big step to starting language development for my child. I could actually teach her a lot without knowing the language. Why? Because your child’s brain can absorb language in a way you can’t. They just need exposure.
One of the best ways to get your kid started in becoming fluent in a language is to do a word a day. Use a chalkboard or a whiteboard. Put it up on the wall and every day, put a new word on it. You can even go through categories: colors, beach, zoo, emotions, etc. While you might think, “there is no way they will remember them”, they will because they are built to learn language this way.
Use most common words or words that fit the day
One great way to find good vocab is to search the internet for the top 1000 words in a language. Introduce it first thing in the morning and continually find ways to use it. Or center it around a craft or an activity. It is great if the word naturally fits into your day for example if you are going to the zoo, then your word of the day should be zoo. If you are going to the dentist, doctor, grocery store, then those should be your words of the day.
Make sure you use a translator to verify pronunciation
An important part of language is pronouncing it correctly. While you aren’t a native speaker, you can still learn to pronounce words correctly. Download a translator app on your phone. When I pick the word the night before, I learn how to pronounce it correctly. Then in the morning, when I introduce the word, we always ask the phone how to pronounce it. Therefore, my kids will hear the correct pronunciation.
Sure, it isn’t as great as a native speaker teaching your child words but it will still make a huge difference. Just think of how many people study English around the world. A lot of them are learning English from people who speak English as a second language meaning they don’t have a native accent. You can still learn how to speak a language in this fashion. And it is 100% better than not making any attempt to work on language while they are little.
Just stick to one word a day
Remember if you do this every day, that is 365 days a year. You just exposed them to that many words. Let’s say you do this for 3 years, then your child was exposed to 1095 words. Now, you might think why stop at one word a day, let’s do three words a day. You are much better off using that word of the day as much as you possibly can instead of increasing the number of words.
You need to do Duolingo
If you can just learn the basics of the language, then you will have a much easier time teaching it. I do Duolingo 5 minutes a day and my kids do it with me. They think it is fun. This helps me to teach them and give them more exposure.
Another thing that Duolingo can give you is the ability to make very simple phrases and sentences. These will be key. You can now take that word of the day and use it in simple sentences such as “I see an elephant”.
While you might think that isn’t going to produce fluency, it will because you are laying the foundation for this language. Their brain will start to understand there are two ways of saying the same thing. Additionally, if you can say simple sentences, you are starting the exposure of learning a different sentence structure.
Increase exposure as much as you can
Children are amazing learners. You can just stick them in a room full of people speaking a second language and they will immediately start learning. Therefore, the more exposure to hearing that second language, the more they will learn.
They will start to “develop an ear for it”. As they continue to learn, this exposure will be critical for how fast they will understand, speak and pick up the language in general.
Spanish music for kids
Our car is only Spanish music. I checked out a bunch of CDs and now we play them all the time. I then bought my favorite ones. I found a lot of music where I can’t hear the voices clearly due to the instruments.
Find Spanish story time and any Spanish classes
Get online and find out if there are any libraries near by that offer a Spanish Storytime. You can also look for immersive classes that are for kids. It might be hard to find but keep checking and ask around. Sometimes, it isn’t a simple search. I ended up finding an awesome music and movement Spanish class for my kids by asking a librarian who told me to email her friend who speaks Spanish. Her friend pointed me in the direction of this class. I would have never found it from a simple internet search.
Babysitter in the native language
There is no way we could afford a nanny to come over every day and speak in the second language. However, something I did do was I found a native Spanish speaking babysitter. I would have her come over once a week for a few hours and speak in Spanish to my kids.
I basically told her to speak in Spanish unless English was necessary. This gives my children a chance to hear the language and see it used in context in person. It is a great way to supplement their learning.
While I would love for it to be more often, this is what we can afford. I basically get work around the house done during the time. I think this step is key to setting a really good foundation for them to become fluent.
I used Care.com to find someone. If you do this, you can filter by languages and search under both tutor and childcare. I would then ask them to tell me how they knew the language. Native is best so your child gets exposed to 100% correct language with the correct pronunciation and flow.
Find friends who speak Spanish
Another way I have found to increase exposure is to find friends who are teaching their kid that language. Even if no one is speaking to your child directly in that language, your child will still pick it up by just being around it.
What I have found is that while most of the conversation is in English, the bilingual parent will still always speak to their child in the target language. And a lot of times, the child will reply in the target language. Those interactions are a great learning tool for your child also. I even pick up a lot since the conversations are simple, so I know my child is too.
If you are learning Spanish, then I highly recommend Noggin. It is an excellent way to increase exposure if you have a toddler or little kid who likes those shows. They have an Hola en espanol where the episodes are completely in Spanish. They also have Cantios which are songs in both English and Spanish. It is a program that is geared to helping preschoolers learn a second language.
Even just from watching Dora (the English version), my kid has picked up a lot of words. She will then use them throughout the day such as Vamanos when we leave, or she tells her sister “Buenos noches” when we say it’s bedtime. We were pretty amazed the first time she did this and it really showed us the power of the child brain. It doesn’t need nearly the same exposure level as an adult.
Spanish kid books from library
Most libraries have kids’ books in foreign languages. Try to pick books out that you have read in English. If you feel comfortable with your pronunciation, then read to them as much as you can in that language. It doesn’t matter if you understand it. Trust me, they are acquiring the language just because of their age.
If you don’t feel comfortable with your pronunciation of the language, then you can either have this be an activity for when the babysitter comes over, or try to only pick books that have an accompanying audio book. Our library has several of these. I have also bought a handful online.
Pursue bilingualism Today
I know how frustrating it can be to find a way to teach your child a second language when you don’t know it yourself. To me at least, it seems all of the advice was to speak it to them, which only works if you already know the language.
So, what do you do if you don’t know a second language? Well, after trial and error, these are the most effective ways I have found, and I hope they help you too.
Remember, while they won’t become fluent overnight, your effort is not in vain. It is making a huge difference in their acquisition of a second language. So, make it fun and make it part of your day. Start with just a word of the day and slowly ramp up their exposure as much as you can through classes, music, babysitters, friends, and books.
It is a process and if you keep working on it throughout childhood, you will get there. The hardest part will be staying motivated as a parent and keeping it a priority. My children have already reached a level that I didn’t think was possible without me speaking it.
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