How do children learn languages?
Not the way most adults do, that’s for sure! Babies don’t use flashcards or have homework or take pop quizzes. All of us as children learned to talk from listening, observing, and connecting with the humans around us.
But in my work at Mi Casa Es Tu Casa®, a bilingual music school for families with babies, and in my personal life writing bilingualbaby.blog, I come across the same question often. How can I teach my child a second language, especially if I’m not fluent in it?
I understand the fears because I have lived them and worked through them myself.
Since my daughter was born, I’ve been speaking to her in Spanish, but Spanish is not my native or heritage language. During our language journey I wondered, will she inherit my mistakes? Will I be able to connect with her emotionally in a language that is not my mother tongue? Will I somehow cause a learning delay? How do I responsibly navigate another culture’s language, especially when I’m using it in such an intimate way?
While I don’t have all the answers, what I do have, 6 years later, is a fully bilingual daughter. She is bright, sensitive, open, understanding, and quick to make friends from all backgrounds.
If you speak a second language (or third or fourth) and you want your child to have the chance to learn it, start speaking it at home with them today (yesterday!), no matter your level in the language.
Here are 5 tips for finding success in raising a child in your non-native language.
1. Find human connection and emotional buy-in for the language
I live in the U.S., where English is, of course, the dominant community language. Our target language (the one I want my daughter to speak) is Spanish. My husband speaks English to my daughter, but he understands a lot of what we say in Spanish.
I have always known that my motivation would not be enough to carry my goals of having a bilingual daughter. Children have to have their own motivation. They need to see value in speaking the target language.
In Texas, where we live, there are a lot of Spanish speakers. This benefits us.
We have friends who speak Spanish with our daughter. She goes to a school with bilingual programming. Furthermore, it’s easy to access cultural and linguistic experiences that support our target language. We can find Spanish language books at the library, parent-child music classes in Spanish, folklorico dance performances, bilingual plays, Day of the Dead festivals, and live salsa music.
Still, you don’t have to have all of that. Find at least one quality connection where you live (or online) with someone that can be a part of your child’s life who speaks the language. Maybe it’s a teacher, a museum with programming in that language, a music class, or language exchange. Or maybe (Covid and finances permitting) it’s through travel to the country where the language is spoken.
Even one deep connection will go a long way in helping your child view the language as important and even necessary. If your child does not have their own motivation and connection to the target language, eventually it becomes nearly impossible to keep up.
2. Be prepared to learn alongside your child
If you approach the language journey as something you are doing together, rather than something you want for your child, your own language capacity will continue to expand alongside your child’s. I can’t stress this enough.
If you are not putting in the work, your child will see right through you.
I used to get headaches at the end of the day alone with my daughter speaking with her in Spanish. My brain was tired from learning new words and doing the difficult work of speaking another language. But it got easier. My fluency in Spanish has improved since my daughter was born.
It’s important to allow yourself space to make mistakes. You can even give up for a day without throwing in the towel. Every bit of the target language you use counts. If you get off track, there’s always tomorrow.
3. Find an anchor for speaking the non-native language at home
- Make Yourself the Anchor. If you know the target language well enough, make it anchored to you. Speak it all the time and be as consistent as possible.
- Choose a Day/Time for Your Anchor. If the language is new to you or you aren’t very fluent, try attaching it to a day/time. For example, if your target language is Mandarin, choose one morning each week when everything you do is in Mandarin to the extent possible.
Learn a good morning song in Mandarin.
Learn the vocabulary for brushing teeth in Mandarin.
Listen to a children’s story in Mandarin together.
Learn breakfast vocabulary in Mandarin.
- Choose Outside Activities or People to Be Your Anchors. If you have a high school level in the target language, you can probably talk about daily activities and keep up with basic phrases. Be consistent with only using your target language for the activities you know how to say really well. You can probably anchor the target language around routines in this case. Eating is always in the target language, going somewhere, getting dressed, describing the weather. Build fluency around what you know by reading the many, many children’s books about routines that are out there.
4. Keep a dictionary close by and try not to translate
What if you pick up a veggie in the grocery store and you don’t know its name? If you have time, look it up and use your new vocab word. If you can’t look it up, say, “Oh I love these long, orange, crunchy vegetables that grow in the ground.” Did you just picture a carrot? If you have the ability, talk around your missing vocabulary until you can look it up.
I like to use the dictionary, “Word Reference” because it provides different definitions for various meanings and uses along with example phrases for context. There’s also a robust forum to browse for even more examples.
If you have an iPhone, use the “Notes” app to remember which words you need to look up, or which ones you learned. Use voice to text to jot them down quickly without having to look at a screen. This is important when you are around a baby or toddler all the time.
When you have time, at the end of the day or the week, revisit those words and find out their meanings. Then, try to use them again soon so they stick.
5. Read and sing to your child in your non-native language
Nothing is more beneficial for language learning than reading aloud and singing to your baby in your target language. Both increase your own fluency and will go straight to your baby’s heart and brain.
Luckily, babies and young children love repetition, so they won’t care how many times you have to read and re-read a page before it sounds fluent. They’ll never get bored of you singing the same 3 songs you know in your target language.
Read even more about the connection between music development and language development in this article from Mi Casa Es Tu Casa®
Even if you can’t gift your child 100% fluency in your target language, there is a lot you can do. You can establish a linguistic framework, love for the language, cultural understanding, and basic vocabulary. Even more importantly, exposure to the sounds of the target language early on will help your child develop that language’s accent.
Now is the time.
Latest posts by Alice Graulty (see all)
- 5 Tips for Raising a Child in Your Non-Native Language - October 4, 2021