What ways can children learn a new language?

What ways can children learn a new language?

What ways can children learn a new language?

From full immersion to flashcards. Here are all your options.

So you want your child to learn a new language. Great! Being bilingual or multilingual has a host of wonderful benefits. But how do you get the desired language into your child’s brain? It can be difficult to know. Particularly if you yourself are not bilingual.

When deciding how to give your child the gift of a second language there are two factors that coincide. Those are how is the language being introduced? And how old is the child? In this post I am going to talk about all the ways a child could acquire a new language. In my post Language Learning Methods by Age, I will discuss age groups and why some techniques work best for different ages.

So let’s start with the fastest, and most intent way-

Full Immersion

Make your kid live in the new language. All interactions are in the target language and the kid just has to figure it out. This sounds pretty harsh and extreme but it doesn’t have to be. There are ways to mitigate the stress level which I will get to in a minute.

But how do I fully immerse my child in a new language, you ask? Well, if you are the adventurous type you could…

…pack up your family and move to a new country where they speak your target language.

Certainly this is the most extreme way your child can learn a new language. Depending on a variety of factors your child might suddenly be in school and social settings where they have to learn the new language, and fast, to be able to communicate.

As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Or in this case, learning a language fast. This form of language learning happens all the time for immigrant children, military families or anyone who moves to a new country for any reason.

A personal note here. This is what my family and I did. In August of 2021 we moved to the Netherlands and later that month our 4 year old daughter started at a Dutch school. We were lucky that the teacher (like most Dutch people) actually speaks English and can translate when necessary. This allowed our daughter to be immersed in the language with her peers but still be able to use English sometimes.

But I can’t just pick up my entire life and move to another country, you say! How else can I immerse my child in a language?

Other Immersion Options

If you can’t, or don’t want, to move to another country you still might be able to give your child an immersive language learning experience.

Language specific daycare or school- These schools and daycares are becoming popular in the US (and other countries as well). A full immersion school or daycare will speak to your child only in that language. So your 2 year old could go to a French speaking daycare but gets to come home to the familiarity of English after school.

But don’t confuse an immersion school with a bilingual school. I’ll talk more about bilingual schools later but just note they are different in the level of language exposure the child receives.

Language camps- Older children might be able to attend a language camp, usually during the summer. These can either be similar to a summer school that is conducted in the target language or more like an outdoor camp. Either way, the camp is conducted entirely in the target language.

This may be a good starting point for language learning or used in conjunction with another language learning method but a single summer is usually not enough time to fully acquire a new language.

One Parent, One Language or a Nanny- If you don’t know what ‘one parent, one language’ is, it’s just like what it sounds. One parent speaks a specific language to the child while, presumably, the other parent speaks another. This is a form of immersion since all the interactions with the parent are in that language. Presumably this could also be done with another caregiver such as a nanny or grandparent.

There are entire books and blogs dedicated to OPOL learning so check those out if you have a language that you can speak to your child. But if you don’t then maybe hiring someone is an option. If you have to hire a nanny for your kids anyway might as well get someone who can speak Mandarin to them, right?

Of course, this requires consistency. So that Mandarin speaking nanny better be followed up with a bilingual school or private lessons to maintain/increase language ability.

Not full immersion but still good

So dragging your kid to a new country or shelling out for a new language nanny is not in the cards. What are some other ways to help your child learn a new language?

Bilingual School or daycare- These are similar to immersion schools but they usually split their time between two languages. I used to work at a bilingual school that taught in English and Spanish. The kids would switch between teachers throughout the day or for specific activities. Even the kindergarteners got both languages and by 5th grade most kids had some level of fluency in their non-native language.

Bilingual schools can be public schools in some places so that can decrease the cost. I have not seen a full language school as a public school in the US (or here in the Netherlands), but more and more bilingual schools are popping up.

And if you can get your kid into a bilingual daycare and then continue with a bilingual school your kid has a pretty good chance of being basically bilingual even if you are not.

Group or private lessons- Can’t get into a bilingual school but still have some money to spend? Language lessons are an option. And now with Zoom and other online options you can get a teacher for your kids from anywhere in the world.

Unless the child is super motivated to learn the language, just having one or two lessons a week probably won’t get them to completely bilingual status. But it can seriously help. I started taking Spanish classes in school when I was 12. Eventually I went on to get a BA in Spanish and successfully communicate while living in Ecuador. I was never completely bilingual but I could easily communicate and used the language for work.

One parent, some language- So you speak another language that you want to teach your kid but you aren’t disciplined enough to follow the strict one parent, one language ideal. Then just do what you can. Talk to them in the target language as much as you can but also get them books, tv and music in the target language.

Research has shown that just being exposed to the sounds of the language as a small child can make it easier to learn that language later in life. So if you only speak French to your kids half the time but let them watch French tv (thanks Youtube!) and play French games on your phone, then when they get to high school and start taking classes they will have a leg up.

Is this a perfect fool-proof way to teach a language? No. Is it better than nothing. Yes.

We all have to do our best with the

resources we have.

So look through this list and see what is the best option for you and your family. In another post I will discuss for which age groups these techniques work best.

But understand that language learning is a process that is never complete. Language can be forgotten if not used but replenished if cultivated.

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