After waiting for a while in a crowded deli line on my lunch break, it was finally my turn. “I’ll have a ham and cheese sandwich, please,” I said, proud of my politeness. “Good morning, sir,” the obviously perturbed worker said. I deserved that. I quickly said, “Good morning, ma’am,” excused myself and repeated my order with a smile. Given how crowded the place was, my New Yorker-brain cut to the chase and dispensed with the greeting. This deli, however, was located in Paris, France, not in Manhattan. I never made that mistake again.
Learning a language is more than learning a lexicon, a grammar and pronunciation. It is learning about cultures and norms and so much more. It is also a long and difficult process that can be daunting to even the most persistent and dogged of learners. How, then, can we encourage our children to undertake learning another language? As a French teacher of over twenty years, I have a few pointers I have gleaned over time.
1. Be honest about your experiences with learning languages.
Whether you never got past the days of the week or became fully bilingual, it is best to be frank with children. They can see through falseness and appreciate the candor about your struggles and successes.
2. Pepper your conversation with words and phrases you know in other languages.
It can be a bit pompous, yes, but it can also be fun. Tell your kids about interesting phrases that exist in other languages that do not exist in English. For example, in French there is a phrase la joie de vivre which means the simple joy you feel being alive. In Italian, the phrase il dolce di fare niente means the sweetness of doing nothing.
3. Immerse yourself in the language and culture.
If you have the time and the means, take a trip abroad. Many of my students have returned from a trip to a French-speaking country brimming with enduring motivation to learn. If that is not an option, why not take a virtual trip with your family? You can also seek ways to immerse yourself through volunteer work or other opportunities in communities where the language you are studying is spoken. Additionally, there are many festivals and cultural celebrations in towns throughout the country that cost little to nothing to attend and can be a terrific way to explore languages and cultures in an informal and fun way.
4. Watch foreign films with your child.
There are countless animated short videos for free on YouTube in many languages as well as feature-length ones on the various streaming sites. It can be beneficial to watch a story you are already family with, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, in another language. Knowing the story frees up the mind to pay attention to the sounds of the language as well as reoccurring words and phrases.
5. Use apps and websites.
There are several but popular ones include: littlepim, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone kids. Most offer a free trial period so give them a try!
6. Learn the language together.
If you child’s school does not offer language classes, you can learn together, informally. Make a weekly schedule and stick to it. You can practice online or borrow books and other resources from the library and even hire a tutor.
7. Avail yourself of resources in your community.
There may be a significant number of speakers of another language in your community. Try to set up a language exchange group at your local library in which you and your child can teach English in exchange for lessons in the language spoken by the other community members.
8. Discuss your ethnic and linguistic heritage with your child.
Many of us are descendants of immigrants from lands where English was not spoken. Talk about that with your child. Are your ancestors from many places? Great! There is that much more to discuss. Put a map of the world on the fridge and place a star on each place an ancestor is from.
9. Have fun!
Instead of merely memorizing lists of words, make it interactive and conversational. Learn vocabulary and grammar in context, not in isolation. Listen to music, explore the art, fashion and foods of the cultures that you are studying.
Éclatez-vous! (Have a ball!)
Check out The Misadventures of Michael McMichaels from author Tony Penn for a great series of chapter books full of vocabulary that will challenge and entertain young readers!