I often get asked about how to start introducing a second language to your child. Every questions comes from a different angle because the parents that ask me that question usually come from very different backgrounds; for example some work full time and spend only the weekends and a few hours every night with their kids, some have kids who are already 5 or 6 years old and have never been exposed much to the second language of their parent, or some feel strange speaking another language in front of their spouse who doesn’t understand what is being said, some are simply overwhelmed by the potential of causing frustration and chaos at home. There are also cases where parents think it is too early to start using 2 languages with their children; on that note, I believe that starting on day 1 of your child’s life will make it easier, not harder, for your child to acquire language in general, but there are of course various circumstances and challenges that might complicate your child’s language development, so at the end of the day the parent always knows best.
In my experience, singing, reading, speaking, and using more than one language with your child from the very first day is a fantastic way to start, but this post is intended for the parents who have slightly older kids (maybe 2 or 3 or 6 years old) who have had very limited exposure to a parent’s native or second language. To those parents, I say: good luck, but it is doable! And hopefully my 5 steps below will help you get started.
Step 1: FIND ONE THING
Find one activity that you know you can commit to performing in a second language. It’s better if the activity can be done frequently, and therefore a great example is BATH TIME. It is done regularly and your child is presumably already familiar with what it entails.
Take your kid up for a bath and during the bath speak only Spanish or German or Mandarin or whatever language you want your child to learn (clearly, a pre-requisite for this to work is that you actually speak the language fluently enough to be able to carry on with the narration of what you’re doing.) During the bath, describe everything that is happening: getting into the bathtub, turning on the water, washing each body part and playing with the toys that are in the bathtub (including their colors). The important advantage here is that the bath provides a contextual backdrop for communication, i.e. a logic that doesn’t necessarily require much explanation; by this I mean that your child knows the general routine of a bath and therefore won’t be completely thrown off by not understanding the words that are coming out of your mouth. The child will intuitively follow your lead and thus acquire the vocabulary through context rather than through theory. For example saying “laver la tête” (“wash your head” in French) while washing your child’s head provides the child an immediate definition of the phrase (as opposed to being at the park and yelling in French from across the playground “Viens ici!” (which means “come here”) or “Ne touche pas” (which means “don’t touch”) . There needs to be proximity between the words and the action performed. Another example is “Zamknij oczy” (close your eyes in Polish) as you pour water over your child’s head: as you say it, make sure to exaggerate closing your own eyes so that you communicate through your body language and the words just narrate what you’re doing.
The objective here is also to make bath time in another language an isolated event from the rest of the day. It is the perfect dose of challenge, without overwhelming your child and setting them up for communication failure. It doesn’t take too long and usually kids like to be in the bath so they’ll associate the other language with fun. Furthermore, the bath routine allows for repetition because presumably you bathe your child almost every night. And with repetition comes success; your child will begin to recognize the words and phrases you use during the bath. You can incorporate questions like “what is this?” or “where is your foot” and then grabbing the foot while you say “here is the foot”. And through this context (and a lot of repetition as you ask about where every arm, ear, nose, belly, and elbow is hiding) your child will soon start understanding the words and phrases. Shortly after that, your child will be able to repeat the words you are using, and finally start answering you when you ask. Eventually you will have established hundreds of communication paths that you can build on from there to take the language out of the bathtub and into other parts of your daily routine.
Step 2: BACKGROUND NOISE
It is important that your child starts to subliminally hear a second language around the house. This background noise should not be directly aimed at your child, but rather should fill the house the same way English permeates throughout the walls of your home. More specifically this means you, as the parent should sing out loud while doing something mundane like washing the dishes or doing the laundry while your child is in the same vicinity as you. Singing is a very effective way to train your child’s ear to take in another language, and you are the best person to perform this task. If your child is older, don’t expect to be able to sing to your child (just yet) at bedtime; your child will most likely not appreciate the new tunes. You will most likely be singing without anyone actively listening to you: your task is to just fill the air with another language. When your child is already a bit older and has his or her own favorite jams in English it will be very hard to introduce a new tunes in another language. Furthermore, if you start forcing a song in another language on them too early, the child will object and ask for Twinkle Twinkle or another favorite they have been used to, and you might start discouraging the acquisition of the second language. Therefore, prepare yourself to sing in the background without expecting your child to pay attention or gain any pleasure out of your song. Repetition is key here because eventually the song you were singing in the kitchen while cooking dinner will make its way to your child’s favorite repertoire and that’s when you will be able to sing them to sleep with “Wlazł kotek na płotek i mruga” (a popular Polish song for kids).
If possible, use the language around your child while talking to other adults (or kids) – for example while speaking on the phone if you have relatives who can speak with you in your second language. Skyping is great, but don’t expect your child to participate in your skype conversation; it will most likely take a very long time before you can show off your child’s linguistic abilities. Instead, focus on letting your child hear you putting another language to use. This will be most effective if you speak about your child during the conversation, in particular repeating/explaining what you were doing together. For example, describe what you did in the bath the night before or venture into new topics like what your child is wearing right now. Listening to you speaking in another language will help your child put a real price on the language. It will prove that there is an application to those strange new sounds/words. Though we often say that kids are like sponges, I find that they are very stingy with how they apply their sponge-like brains; they need to know that there is a real-life use for the other language.
A secondary option is to play songs in the background through CDs or youtube or download podcasts of radio talk shows so that the spoken word is present in your home – remember, the content does not need to be geared towards kids; this should be background noise that you listen to as an adult. Same with the singing: you don’t need to sing only nursery rhymes in the other language, you can belt out with Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” in French or “Besame Mucho” in Spanish, and in fact the more you enjoy the song, the more likely you are to spark a subliminal interest within your child to learn what you’re singing about.
Step 3: ADD A MEAL
Once you have established a comfortable bath time routine in another language with your child, you can incorporate the second language into one meal of the day, for example breakfast. Every day, use your second language for that meal (or start with 3 times a week, alternating between English and your second language). Similarly as in the bath, describe what you are doing while taking the cereal out of the pantry, taking the milk out of the fridge, ask questions while pointing to two choices: do you want blueberries or raspberries? Count things as you put them on the table. Use adjectives to describe the taste of the food you are eating, and make sure to incorporate the same phrases like “where is…” that you were using in Step 1 (during bath time) but this time you will be training vocabulary like fork or spoon or milk. Keep the challenge level low and do this on days when you are not in a hurry. Give yourself time to be patient and positive. If you know you’re going to be rushing because you need to get to work or you have an appointment and need to get out the door fast, revert to English. This method will be effective when you are patient, animated, and when you create an atmosphere of fun and play while using the language.
Step 4: VALIDATE and REPEAT in a second language
All parents figure out that your kids copy you. The idea of “modeling” is a critical part of parenting and education. Teachers also know that they have to model both behavior and excellence at a task in order to teach their students how to do something. When introducing a second language to your child, you as the parent become the teacher, but you can’t really follow a curriculum; instead you get to use your own child’s speech patterns as your guideline/material. The best way of incorporating modeling the use of a second language is to simply repeat what your child just said in English into the language you are trying to teach them. For example, if your child says “that car is red”, you first validate that they are correct – never correct them – then translate what they said so that they instantly feel the connection between what they said in English and then the other language. So for example in French, you would say: “Oui, tu as raison! (validation, i.e. yes, you’re right) – la voiture est rouge” (the car is red). Use the validate and repeat method as often as you can throughout the day, latching on to the vocabulary and phrases that your child uses. It is much more effective to follow their interests and speech patterns than it is for you to impose a learning structure on your child. Become their parrot and offer them the words that they need to communicate with you. When they say “I’m not tired” you say “je vet at du ikke er trøtt” (in Norwegian: I know that you’re not tired); when they say “I want more milk” you say “Selvfølgelig kan du ha mer melk!” (of course you can have more milk”). Mirroring their speech will teach them that there is a second dimension to language, but more importantly they will soon start seeing that this second language is available to them and that they are welcome to use it.
Step 5: EXCURSIONS
Incorporate the language into an adventure: for example a trip to the zoo. Decide that for that day/event you will speak only Italian or Spanish or Polish etc. The excursions will provide opportunities to expand vocabulary – again through context rather than theory, meaning that you see an elephant, you point to an elephant and you say “Słoń” (which means elephant in Polish).
The excursions don’t always need to be so exotic. In lieu of the zoo, you can try just going for a walk around your block: point out the cars on the street, the grass, the trees, birds, and ants walking in a ling on the pavement. One day, decide that you’re going to speak only Portuguese at the grocery store. With your child in the cart, point to all the fruits and vegetables you are selecting, ask questions like “where is the milk” and head over to the dairy fridges. Try incorporating one “excursion” a week and then slowly try to do it twice a week and slowly increase based on your child’s interest.
Eventually you will be able to upgrade speaking another language for an entire day, however all 5 of these steps require you to gauge your child’s frustration levels. Don’t make it too difficult because they will get discouraged. Set low expectations and follow your child’s lead as much as you can. If in the bath they want to play with a washcloth, talk about the washcloth. If they want eat raspberries, count the raspberries and talk about their color and taste. Always accept their English when they speak to you, meaning you should never correct them and ask that they repeat something in another language. Your task is to simply offer an alternative language. Most importantly, remember that only you can make that language come to life within their life and their world. Give it a try and you’ll do great 🙂