How to teach your kids a foreign language

Jan 9, 2020

Have you ever wanted to teach your kids a new language or learn one yourself?Let me share a little bit about how I did it and how you could do it too.I was born in Italy so Italian will forever be my first language. I always dreamt of learning English as a child, but I had no idea how that was going to happen. I took an English class in elementary school. I learned some, but not enough to carry on a conversation with someone else. In middle school I switched my focus to French because I absolutely wanted to go to Paris some day. I studied hard because I liked the language.When I was 14 my family moved to the Canary Islands. So I was in a new country which forced me to go to a Spanish High School and learn Spanish.As a teenager I started dreaming of going to an American University. That school was Brigham Young University. For me, to accomplish that dream was something that came with no little effort. But that’s how I finally mastered the English language. Or sort of!

Because I felt I always wanted to perfect my knowledge of Spanish and Italian even more, I took history and phonetics classes in college.

As an adult, since I now lived in the Unite States, I knew that I wanted my kids to always speak my native language. I always thought that I would marry a guy that would speak Italian. But when I met David, I soon found out he was a Brazilian fan who spoke English obviously, but only Portuguese and some Spanish as a second language. Lucky for us, we could both understand each other at least a little bit when speaking our favorite languages.

English is now our middle ground at home.

I grew up speaking Italian and all of my extended family speaks it, so we knew it was important for our family to keep it a part of our heritage.

I have always spent the majority of my time with the kids too, so I speak Italian and English at home to them.

Practicing another language still doesn’t happen easily. My first child was the easiest to teach, but once we had more than one kid it was difficult to constantly switch to speaking Italian to them since they both spoke English when talking to each other.

I spoke Italian to my kids constantly at home at first, but as the years went by, I often felt that people felt uncomfortable if I spoke Italian so I would try and speak English to my kids in front of them. I think sometimes people don’t know if I am cursing at my kids or saying something negative about them, lol. So I try and be respectful when in public.

School makes it hard too since they learn very content specific vocabulary which is harder to translate and explain in a foreign language at home all of a sudden. Some people I am sure do way better at being consistent with their own children.

No matter how difficult things have been we always go back to it.

Other times speaking in Italian to them while out and about allows me to be able to say something private to my kids without making them feel embarrassed if their friends hear it.

Sometimes I am not sure if they understand me, and I am immediately tempted to just translate things into English. But I have realized that I need not limit ourselves and I need to believe they can do it. Even if it means they don’t understand everything right away. It’s easy to give our kids solutions right away. When I lived in Spain and people spoke to me at school at first, no one would translate. I learned over time.

Sometimes the only limit to my kids learning, is my own self when I have a limited belief about their capabilities.

I could have always done better with it, but the point is that we have never given up.

I started since they were very little with the simplest of words. Mamma, papà, latte for milk, succo for juice. Than we would learn body parts. I always translate their books when I read to them. That is something that takes so much effort. It’s hard to read and translate at the same time especially when it comes to books that name all the animals. Probably also because mommy tired brain is constant.

I have often wanted to just write down the translation so it doesn’t take as much brain power. But then I personally like the challenge. But that’s one trick that anyone could use.

Recently I have also purchased my kids some books for us to work on at home. And we started doing this online program multiple times a week called Rosetta Stone.

The biggest way for my kids to make sense of me speaking this weird gibberish, has been to take them out in the world and travel to Italy. There their Italian vocabulary always increases by 20% in just a matter of weeks. They also get to understand why it’s worth learning it and practicing it. Some days we make it a point to speak Italian only, including dad.

My husband likes to use Duolingo to practice.

Even if my kids may never learn my language as well as I did, it’s worth doing it. A second language helps a child’s brain grow laterally. It enriches them and helps them think in unique new ways. Never give up even if you or your child feel like all you have learned is 5 words. I am sure all of us have taken some language course at some point and can speak a few words at least from another language.

Here a few tips for anyone who wants to try learing a new language:

  1. Make time to practice

The easiest way for our family to make time to practice a new language is to substitute those times where we would all sit and watch tv at the end of the day, and use that moment to engage our brain on an online language learning program.

2. Add it to something you already do like TV

If tv is a must for example, I have always loved researching italian cartoons. I even do it for British cartoons sometimes. I think the British vocabulary is so refined!

Other times I have purchased the foreign version of our favorite Disney movies that we have memorized. Because we already know all the words, we can easily pick up on the words and vocabulary in a foreign language. The more we watch that movie the better we remember the words.

I recommend adding subtitles to the movies so you can also learn how words are spelled in a different language. I usually watch the movie with English subtitles and then switch to the ones in the native language of the movie the second time around so we can all use what’s written as a point of reference.

3. Believe in their capabilities and yours

I too have sometimes shied away from languages that my kids wanted to learn. Recently my kids asked me to learn Chinese. My first thought was, how can they do it, when I don’t even know how to speak it myself? Where would they start? How would I help them with their homework. The beauty of it is that we don’t have to be there for everything.

4. Get outside help

Sometimes we can hire outside help, enlist the help of a teacher, an online program, or the web. See if there is a nearby district with an immersion program for your children in a language that your family would like. Remember most school require the kids to start from first grade in order to make it into their foreign language programs, so make plans ahead.

5. Practice with someone you know

Whether it’s you or your child who is learning, make time to practice speaking with someone you know. Do you have a friend or a relative that could do with a nice conversation with you or your child? Find someone you trust that could come over for a snack and practice with you.

6. Go abroad

Another great way to practice another language is to travel to a country where they speak it. Can you take some time off and go live abroad for a while? Or go on a vacation and just explore. You will definitely pick up a few words.

If you find that you all cannot go, try a student exchange program. Growing up my parents would often send my older sister to England during the summer. There they would enroll her in a summer english program. To find a place for her to stay my parents would find a dear friend that lived in a different country and ask if my sister could stay with them for a while. Other times they would offer their parents if they would like one of their children to come to return for the favor. See if you know of anyone who lives in another country that you trust and is of interest to you and find out if you could get some help with at least arranging things in a safe way.

Learning a different language at home with kids can really turn into something that you naturally do without taking away any of the extra time you had before. Some things are as easy as pressing an extra button on the tv screen before turning on a show. So, what languages are you thinking you are wanting to learn at home? Are you already teaching your children another language, if so which one?

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Serena Essuman


Serena Essuman

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