As a trilingual American and mother to two bilingual kids, I’ve had a lot of firsthand experience with language learning. While I’m not an educator by training, I developed my own homespun curriculum to teach Spanish to my kids and to use in mother and child meetups I conducted out of my home. That same curriculum became the MamaLingua app, which is now helping parents around the world get started down the path of learning Spanish or English with their children.
Through plenty of reading, research, and my own experience as a multilingual mom, I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Most importantly, I’ve discovered the best way to learn a new language is to learn like a child. Here are my tips on learning a second language.
Babies are always listening to the sounds that surround them. When they begin to babble, they try to imitate what they’ve heard, until finally, recognizable language starts emerging. Once young children can fully mimic the sounds they’ve been exposed to, words evolve. This is an important concept because it’s the foundation for learning any language.
I occasionally turn on Spanish cartoons with minimal words, such as Masha and the Bear. After the show, my young daughter will come up to me and proceed to imitate what she’s heard. She may not understand all the words she’s saying, but she’s able to closely imitate intonation, emphasis, and phrasing.
By contrast, most adults, including myself, shut off when we hear a language we don’t comprehend. But unlike us, babies and young kids listen attentively to new sounds. As adults, we often have to work a little harder to focus and actively listen to the sounds of another language and practice getting comfortable with imitation.
Repetition Creates Permanence
Once a child is beyond babbling, they start using words they’ve heard repeatedly. Toddlers make connections between an object and its corresponding word – like real-life flashcards. Ultimately, repetition creates permanence, and young kids – seemingly effortlessly – learn the words and phrases they use in daily routines.
We took this approach when we created our MamaLingua app. In organizing our content through daily routines, you can learn as your kids do – through relevant, routine repetition.
Create a Language Sanctuary
Even if you whittle down your focus to relevant words and phrases, trying to recall all the words you use in a day can still feel like a daunting task when you’re just starting out learning a new language. That’s why we recommend that you create a language sanctuary.
What’s a language sanctuary, you ask? It’s the place you choose to use your “target language.” I personally like the kitchen, because it seems to be where we spend most of our time together as a family. It’s also the place where I know I’ll find myself saying the same phrases over and over again, such as“¡Es hora de comer!” It’s time to eat! So start with your favorite routine, like eating and drinking, and make your kitchen, bedtime, or bath time your language sanctuary.
Deploy the 80/20 Rule
Learning a language is challenging. It simply takes time to master, which is why you also need a game plan. At MamaLingua, we recommend concentrating on learning the words and phrases you say with the greatest frequency. In our daily speech with our kids, we tend to say the same things over and over again. If we use the 80/20 rule, that means you should concentrate the greatest percentage of your focus on learning the relatively small number of words and phrases you’ll actually use most often. (We designed our app with this idea in mind. If you set a goal to master the content in our app, you’ll have a significant foundation to actively use and build on.)
Listen, Speak, Read
Developing listening, speaking, and reading skills in parallel gives you an advantage when learning a new language. That’s why we at MamaLingua promote reading Spanish alongside your child. Only by listening to yourself read and speak will you start to perfect your pronunciation while also expanding your – and your child’s – vocabulary. Of course, daily reading also engenders a love of reading, and when you travel together with your child through a story, you create a special bond.
Getting accustomed to hearing your target language spoken in context is important in creating a foundation for learning. If you’re not able to immerse yourself in it by living abroad, the next best thing is to surround yourself with media in your target language, from music to news to movies. Reading lyrics and subtitles is helpful, when available. And if you’re learning Spanish alongside your child, you can tune in to our MamaLingua Spotify channel for a curated list of Spanish songs and lullabies that you can listen to together.
Watching cartoons in your target language is also helpful because the language is geared to young kids. It’s usually simple and repetitive, and accompanying images make comprehension a lot easier. Here are my favorite Spanish language cartoons, organized by age group.
And of course, a community is critical. If you’re able to, surround yourself with family and friends who support your commitment to learning a second language. Finding native speakers is ideal, but sometimes just finding someone else on the same journey helps keep you accountable. This person can keep you practicing during your encounters and play dates. Personally, I’m driven by competition. Connecting with another mom who was raising bilingual children was a great motivator for me and has helped keep me committed to improving my Spanish and teaching my kids.
When you run into a word that you don’t know, use the tools at your fingertips to learn it. I can’t tell you how many vocabulary words I’ve learned with my children – from exotic animal names to the names of myriad construction trucks. –by simply looking them up in the moment. I have Google Translate on my iPhone, which helps with instant translation. (Though it’s important to remember that literal translations are often inaccurate. For example, “paper jam” translates to “mermelada de papel”!) And when I’m with a native speaker, I always take full advantage of using my Spanish. When I get stuck, I’ve learned to simply ask, “How do you say…?”
Get Comfortable with Discomfort
Learning a language can feel embarrassing, which is why learning alongside your child offers the perfect opportunity to put yourself out there. It’s easier to be ourselves with our kids – and they love us even when we make mistakes. So what if you sound silly? Your kids will probably love you all the more for it. At MamaLingua, we say to start where language begins: at home. And when you’re ready to take it to the next level, move outside the comfort of your four walls. Embarrassment is a natural response, but the reality is that most people will welcome and applaud your effort. In the meantime, check out these 10 strategies for implementing Spanish at home.
Focus on the Journey
Think about all the things you’ll gain learning a new language. While the journey may be challenging, each step along the way offers opportunities for growth, new friendships, enhanced empathy, and ultimately, greater knowledge and shared understanding.
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