Language Learning for Children
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How can my child learn to speak another language, especially if I don’t. It’s a question I get a lot, and I want to talk about the research, the benefits, as well as some actionable things that you could do as a parent to get your children the opportunity to be proficient in more than one language. Throughout my career, I’ve taught languages to a lot of children. I’ve taught private classes to youngsters and groups of youngsters. I’ve also been a language immersion teacher in Seoul, Korea. I was Director of the English Language Immersion School at Sejong University. I’m a certified kindergarten teacher, which I taught earlier in my career. I also have a Spanish language immersion teaching credential from grades K through eight, where you teach regular content areas with part of the day in Spanish. I’ve also taught Spanish to elementary school students.
I don’t think there’s any better gift than you can give a child than language, be that learning how to read, because when you can read, you can learn anything, or being able to communicate with more and more people. There are so many benefits to being able to speak another language. The general cognitive benefits are outstanding. There are many studies that have been done that talk about children’s executive functions and in cognitive neuroscience, essentially what that means, is being able to switch tasks. So being able to pay attention to different things, one thing, and then easily get into another thing, so it’s very good.
Critical thinking. Learning another language just helps you problem solve because you learn so much through negotiating meaning. And problem solving. I truly believe that people who speak more than one language are very flexible because when we learn languages, we learn not just the words and the systems, we also learned the way of looking at things. We learn about the culture, which is the products, the practices, and the perspectives. So we learned different ways of looking at things and it gives you more possibilities. There’s not just one way to do things, there’s many ways to do things. It helps in reading, reading scores are very, very much improved in students who speak more than one language. And we’ll talk about a students who do this as a second language, a little bit later.
SAT scores. Just overall improved academic performance, so there are many ways or many contexts rather, where students learn languages or kids, children learn to speak more than one language. And I just want to go over a few really common ones. You might have a situation where, as I was just talking about, a child immigrates with their family from one country to another. For example, you are a Portuguese speaker and you find yourself living in the United States and you need to learn English. That’s one example, but of course there are infinite possibilities there.
And in those cases, the child tends to learn their native language at home, that’s the language of communication in their home. And when they go to school is when they learn the other language. And people used to really worry about this model, where you’ve got a native language at home and another language at school, they would be afraid that their children would fall behind in school and maybe they would speak to them in their native language, which they weren’t necessarily academically proficient in. And they thought that was preferable to speak in their own language, which is a shame instead of honoring their home language, that those students’ language skills can develop, it’ll only do something but help them.
So for example, if you speak Spanish at home, speaking Spanish at home to your students and your children will do nothing but help them improve their Spanish and whatever language they’re learning at school. And I’ll say English here, because there’s a common scenario in the United States. And while it’s true that those students do struggle a little bit, or they can, in some of these situations where they go to school not knowing the language, they learn really quickly, and it takes them about two years to something called BICS, which is called basically interpersonal skills, your basic interpersonal communication skills. So that’s talking to people, and they’re going to learn that on the playground, they’re going to learn that from playing, from interacting, listening to their teacher, listening to stories. It’s really natural and you’ll start hearing that really accent-less sort of language a lot of times, especially if they’re early, early to start this.
And then it takes them about five to seven years to learn what we call CALP, which is their academic language, and where are they kind of hit that same level. And a lot of times you’ll hear early teachers really worried because they really care about their students, that they were maybe a little bit behind and it just takes them a little bit longer to catch up to that same point. But boy, once they do, you get all the benefits of that bilingualism. You speak two languages beautifully and almost without an accent, you can function in two languages, you can translate, you can interpret their natural and you get all the cognitive benefits as well.
So again, improved academic performance, reading, those literacy skills, right, that what we learned in the reading and writing is transferable. So they are learning this in possibly two languages and everything they learn in one language will spill over into the other so it’s just a win, win situation. It just might look a little not perfect for the first couple of years, but it’s just a question of sticking with it. So that’s one way that your native language at home and then another language when students go to school, and so you’ll hear this wonderfully bilingual person.
Another model, another way in which many children grow up with another language, is by having someone in the home. So oftentimes when I see parents from two different countries, one parent will speak to the child and one language and one parent will speak to the child at another language. And the child doesn’t get confused, people are always worried about that. They find a place in their brain, they understand that these are two different languages. There are two different ways of seeing things, two different ways of seeing the world. And of course, you continue to do this and you will learn a language very well.
I’ve met a lot of people who’ve done this, and they may, in their teen years let’s say, respond back to a parent who does not speak their dominant language let’s say English, I’m from the United States and I live in the UK, but they understand perfectly. So it’s interesting to see these conversations, parents speaking to their child in their native tongue and the child responding to them. And of course there’s grandparents and nannies and extended family, and those are certainly ways for a person to be really comfortable and really immersed in another language.
The very first linguistics course I took, when I was a college student, was about talking about the language acquisition hypothesis or theory I believe. This was a long time ago, so you have to forgive me. But the thing that really stuck out to me was that they said children pick up languages between seven and 11. They acquire languages, which means that sort of natural way. And I really thought that made a whole lot of sense.
However, now looking back all those years with all the experience that I’ve had and watching people grow up and learn one language, two languages, three languages in all sorts of different contexts. I’m not a hundred percent sure that I believe that that’s true. I think oftentimes children learn languages in the ways that I just talked about because of opportunity. You have to learn another language from outside your home, if your parents are from one country or your guardians, and you’re going to a school in a new country or in a country they’ve immigrated to, that’s oftentimes the case and you’re forced to do that.
And one, I think children have some really distinct advantages. I certainly don’t want to discount the researcher because they’ve done more research than I have that’s for sure, they’ve researched their critical period, they’ve tracked lots of people. But again, from my vantage point, that perfect bilingual child is an ideal, and it’s great, but it’s not a realistic situation for most of us. I think those children are in a context, again, where it’s necessary, and I also think that children have some really distinct advantages. When you talk about being immersed in a language for a long time, I think there’s some physiological things with hearing after certain age, we don’t hear certain sounds and pronunciation can be really hard to mimic and children have an advantage. If they hear it early enough, they can reproduce it early enough.
Children also have, it’s the affect. One thing that teaching languages to children and spending time with children is that they don’t worry too much about being wrong or right, they just want to communicate. And there are so many fun contexts, fun interesting contexts that you get to do languages in games and play and, and music and films and books and activities. They don’t have enough time to figure out that it’s something weird or different that they’re doing. I think that’s a huge reason that children are definitely more successful at languages when they’re put in a situation or when they learn them in schools. And the other one I want to talk about is the long sequence, if you go to even the 7-Eleven in Sweden, it’s astounding, people speak English, I could be walking on the street in the United States. The same as in the Netherlands, really impressive. They learn it for years and years and years, and years and years in school and they don’t think anything of it.
Another way that people learn languages as children are those immersion programs we talked about, that I taught in, where you’re learning from an early age another language and content at the same time. So again, you’re going to be feeling really comfortable and not thinking it’s anything strange or weird. That’s the language of these subjects that you’re doing in school. They’re set up all different sorts of ways, there’s two-way immersion and dual immersion, and there’s lots of different configurations. But bottom line, students spend part of their day learning content, could be math, science, art, in another language. They learn a content area through the target language.
Many years ago, I heard a researcher and author speak, Dr. Helena Curtain. And she wrote a language book called, Languages and Children, and she is an amazing lady. And it’s very detailed, and she goes into a lot of research studies and a lot of what she’s seen and studied throughout the years. And I certainly don’t want to disrespect or disagree with her in this one thing that she feels really insistent about, is that when children have a language program, their teachers should be degreed and native speaker of that language. And while I certainly agree with that, that teachers and educational institutions do need credentials, I also think it’s very ideal. So I think that you can learn another language, and maybe it’s not the perfect situation, as Dr. Curtin has sort of outlined in her book of native speaker with a degree solely dedicated to teaching languages, it’s great, it’s ideal, and kids deserve that type of input. With that said, I’m not sure how realistic that is.
So if you want your child to speak another language, I have a few suggestions for you. First of all, it’s probably not likely that you can go back and raise your child in a bilingual environment, right? You had the family situation that you have, you live where you live. So those aren’t really factors that you can really do much about. And further onto that, living where you live, you also live in a place that maybe offers a language immersion program, or maybe does not. You may live in a place that offers a long sequence of language, or maybe it does not. Maybe you live in a place that offers children enrichment classes or not.
Again, these things aren’t necessarily in your control, but what is wonderful about the world that we live in while it’s not perfect, there are things that you can do to get into your daily family routine life even if you don’t speak another language that can help your child have that long sequence, have exposure to language. You ramp up the intensity, you ramp up what they’re doing, the more benefits you’re going to get. And I want to talk about a few alternatives that you can find materials very easily online in the next 15 minutes. And I’m going to kind of ask you to consider what this might look like for the age of your children. So obviously something that’s appropriate for a two year old is probably not going to be very well received by a 16 year old.
The earlier you start the better, and it doesn’t have to be hard. So your TV. Watching TV in the target language, Netflix is great. I would Google Netflix shows in ______ for children. And I would bet that not only will you find shows on Netflix, you’ll find shows all over the web on YouTube. It’s just growing the amount of content out there from all over the world and have that be something your child watches.
Languages in your car. I would say, go to the library, go on Amazon and find music for your car or language lessons for children and have that time in your car be language time. Could be on the way to school, it could be the grocery store, that’s a well-defined time. They know that’s another language time. There are great apps for that. Kids are so intuitive and they love all the gamification stuff. So while it may be sort of upper elementary, middle school to where they’re ready for things like Duolingo, there’s lots of fun things out there, just search apps for children. And further to that, there’s a lot of apps with stories for things like iPads and phones that they’re really immersive and they speak to children. So a great way to get some of that reading time in there.
And if you’re lucky enough to have any tutors available to you, I would highly suggest having playtime or some portion of playtime in another language. One of the things that I love to do with young children is play games like Guess Who, anything in the target language, it’s fun, it’s immersive, they don’t even feel like they’re learning another language. And again, if you don’t speak a language that’s really hard for you, but if you have a tutor, I would highly recommend early on play in another language that’s fun.
And when children are speaking all the way up to adulthood, so you could do this, is a site called Italki, and you can connect with native speakers and have lessons and there’s plenty of people who specialize in lessons for children. So it’s all online, it’s FaceTime, Skype, et cetera. You can have your child learning French from someone in Paris tomorrow. Well, thank you so much for listening. I really hope that these tips to give you some ideas, certainly not exhaustive list of how to get languages into your child’s life.
Thank you for listening to the 5-Week Linguist Show with Janina Klimas. join us each week here and visit us at reallifelanguage.com/reallifelanguagblog for more resources, for learning and teaching languages.
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