When raising a bilingual or multilingual child, it is most peoples’ goal to reach 100% fluency with all target languages. While an admirable goal, many worry when their child isn’t as fluent as they had hoped. For effective language learning, children must be provided a strong foundation upon which to build their language abilities. Building a foundation takes time and effort, but it can be done.
Through my research, I have found that there are three keys to building a strong language learning foundation for children. I hope that these tips will help you develop and adjust your own strategy to ensure your child’s success.
Three Keys to a Successful Language Learning Foundation:
To begin building your children’s language learning foundation, it is important to figure out first, what kind and level of exposure your child will have to your target languages.
If your child does not have enough exposure to a target language, it doesn’t matter how hard you try, your child will not learn the language. Use it or lose it; language can come and go.
I know many families that, while living in Chile, had their children learning and speaking both languages regularly. But, upon their return to the United States, the children lost their ability to speak Spanish.
The exposure simply wasn’t there. Bilingual schooling in the United States is still not readily accessible. While they were very active in the English Speaking community while in Chile, they were not active in finding a Latino community to help their children with their Spanish in the US. Many believed that because their children were older, they would retain the language naturally. Unfortunately, this is not how language development works.
To learn a language effectively, children should have at least 30% of their waking hours involved in a language. This includes activities such as reading, writing, listening and speaking the target language. When you’re dealing with two languages, this is a much easier percentage to handle. However, the more languages you are trying to include in your children’s life, the more difficult this becomes.
I do want to emphasize that ANY exposure is better than NO exposure.
If you can’t manage exactly 30% every single day, don’t worry. But, you do want to pay attention to it. If your children are not advancing in a certain language as much as you would like, take a good look at how much exposure they are getting.
For example, let’s say you are trying to teach your children three languages: English, French and Spanish. They are doing excellent in English as it is the majority language. Spanish is also doing well because their father is a native speaker. However, the French is lagging behind. Some adjustments in the percentages of exposure would be of great benefit. Find some French music or movies to watch as a family! Turn on French subtitles for other movies. Invest in an additional after school French class.
Other methods of increasing children’s exposure to a target language include: formal classes, a nanny/caretaker that speaks the target language, increasing entertainment in the target language (music, cartoons, podcasts, etc.) and traveling to a native speaking country.
Surround your children with languages and watch their worlds grow before you.
Once you have the exposure for the languages figured out, the next element that you need to build your children’s language learning foundation is incentive.
If you are trying to teach your children a language, you must provide some sort of incentive for them to learn, speak, and write the language. Reasoning like “this will serve you well in the future” doesn’t register with young children. They want to see the utility of the language right now. This is especially important for the Minority Language at Home (MLAH) strategy. If your children go to school and their friends only speak the majority language, they may start to question why they even need the minority language.
This is a common issue with children, and many go through a stage where there is resistance to the minority language.
Unfortunately, incentives to learn are the most difficult key to remedy. For example, if only Grandpa speaks Russian, the rest of the family speaks English, and your children only see Grandpa once a year, there is not much incentive to learn.
This also comes into play when both parents are fluent in the same languages. A child may start to favor one language and refuse to speak in the other because “mom/dad understand me no matter what.”
In these cases, you must make an additional effort to ensure that the child has incentive to learn the target languages. In the case of family members who live far away, scheduling weekly or bi-weekly Skype sessions could help stimulate your child’s interest in a language. Taking children on a trip to a foreign country can also raise interest.
However, I must say that the children that I have seen be successful in learning multiple languages are those that not only have personal ties to the languages, but that find other subjects that they want to learn about within the language itself. For instance, Felipe learned English on his own, why? He is a huge movie buff. All of the best movies, critics, and Hollywood news were in English. While he took English classes in school, those weren’t useful or interesting to him. But, the drive to learn more about the movie industry gave him the incentive he needed to learn the language.
In order to create incentive, it is essential show children the practical application of a language.
I remember my Spanish classes in school, they were so boring. No offense to my teachers, but grammar and conjugation just isn’t my jam. It was only when I realized how I could use the language to my benefit that I became interested in actively learning Spanish.
What was the use I saw at the moment, you ask? Ricky Martin. That’s right. His Livin’ la Vida Loca CD was one of the first albums I ever owned. Many of the tracks were in Spanish, and while the tune was snappy, I wanted to figure out what he was saying. Imagine, if I hadn’t had that sort of motivation, I may not have studied Spanish for long. I wouldn’t have traveled to Chile, have my career, or even have Amanda.
While the usefulness of a language may be obvious to you, it may not be to a child.
It is imperative that you take the time to show them how learning this language will open up their lives. It is also important to remember that every child is different. What may drive one child may not interest another in the least. The most effective way to incentivize your child is to play to their interests and strengths.
With personalized incentives, you won’t struggle to motivate your children to continue learning your target languages.
So, you have your exposure figured out and you have your incentives in place. Now, how exactly are you going to teach your children your target languages? One thing is for sure: Children thrive on predictability and structure. Consistency is key.
If you change up your language strategy too often, you will create an atmosphere where your child feels uncomfortable speaking your target languages. Much of what you choose depends on your family’s language situation, but I urge you to choose a strategy and stick with it for a determined amount of time.
Consistency doesn’t mean that your strategy can’t evolve as your family does. I encourage you to schedule review periods, and if you notice that your child is not speaking the target languages as well as you would like, consider adjusting.
“Winging it” will not create an atmosphere of growth, nor will it create a strong language learning foundation for your child.
One thing that I would ensure is to sit down and have a discussion with your family members about your language strategy. It is important that if they are speaking one of the target languages that they are consistent in their usage of the language as well. I know that it is exciting when your little one learns to talk and it is so cute to hear them say things in foreign languages. But, mixing and matching languages is not a good idea.
Consistency is also important within the language that you are speaking. Don’t use Spanglish, Frenchlish, Portuñol, or whatever combination of languages you can think of. If you are speaking one language, don’t mix your structure and vocabulary. This is where children struggle learning, and it can result in less fluency overall.
I hear people say, “oh, they’ll sort it out eventually,” but look at it this way: Would you teach algebra to a 1-year-old? Before they learn numbers or learn to count? While they may eventually ‘figure it out,’ you have to understand that the way that you speak is building the foundation for the child’s language for the rest of their life.
Consistency makes learning languages easier and more enjoyable for children.
Finally, whatever you do, don’t give up!
Learning languages is so important for children. Our world grows smaller each day with the expansion of technology. Any advantages that we can give our children in becoming global citizens should be prioritized.
But, if your children don’t have a strong foundation, it leads to disinterest or floundering in the target languages. While you shouldn’t obsess or stress, it is important to have a game plan. Exposure, incentive and consistency are key to any language learning plan.
I hope that by learning more about these keys to building a strong foundation for language learning, you can develop an effective (and fun!) learning environment for your children.
Are you teaching your children two or more languages? What do you find to be your biggest challenges?
Let us know in the comments below, and we may follow up with you for future articles.
Caitlin is the managing director of Snuggleosophy and the mother of 1-1/2 year old Amanda. She has lived as an expat in Santiago, Chile for the past 7 years and speaks English and Spanish fluently. She loves to promote reading for children starting from birth as well as multilingual and multicultural parenting. For her day job, she is a pricing and transportation analyst for international freight.