Teaching Kids to Speak a Second Language


Millions of kids are already bilingual because they are raised in families where their native tongue is spoken at home, but English is the primary language outside of the home. For these kids, being fluent in two languages is the norm, but for many children, the only language tuition they have is at school.

There are many great reasons to teach your child a second language. Even toddlers can benefit from being taught the basics of a second language, and according to experts, this is the best age to start exposing young children to a foreign language.

A groundbreaking University of Washington research study found that children have an innate ability to gain proficiency in a foreign language if they are exposed to it before the age of seven. The best time to start teaching a child a second language is between 6 and 12 months. At this age, their brain is going through a critical stage in language development, so it soaks up new sounds like a sponge. A young child’s brain is open to new patterns and sounds. At this age, they are not afraid of trying to speak different words.

Adults often find learning a foreign language difficult because it can be hard to differentiate between subtle sounds a native speaker detects very easily. Introducing a second language to a very young child boosts their language skills from an early age and encourages their creativity.

Children introduced to languages as a baby reach developmental milestones quicker. Language skills give them an edge as they grapple with cognitive challenges. Studies have shown that learning a second language boosts a child’s critical thinking skills and encourages their brain to be more mentally flexible.

Many schools begin teaching foreign languages from the age of 7-10, but for maximum value, the benefits of learning a second language from a very young age are hard to ignore.

Bilingual parents find it relatively easy to teach their child a second or even third language. For example, the Spanish parent talks to the child in Spanish while the French parent speaks only in French when at home. Meanwhile, the child learns to speak English at kindergarten and school, as well as within the wider family. It is a natural way to become fluent in more than one language and this is how millions of children end up bilingual.

Of course, it helps if one parent’s native tongue is different, as dual language development is natural. However, even if both of you speak English as a first language, you can still introduce your child to Spanish, French, or even Mandarin Chinese via a sequential learning program.

Here are some useful ways to introduce your child to a second language.

Daily Exposure to a Second Language

Immersing a child in a second language is a natural way to teach them new language skills. The easiest way to do this is to let them spend time with someone who speaks a second language. This could be a relative, friend, or even a teacher. The more they are exposed to a second language, the easier it will be for them to pick up new words and sounds without any drama.

A native speaker offers verbal and social cues to help a child make the link between a word or a phrase and what it means. For a young child, playing with someone who speaks the target language makes learning seamless. They won’t even be aware they are learning a new language.

Learning through Play

Invite a native speaker into your home and set up a play corner. Label items with the target language and encourage the person to speak to your child in the target language only. Sing songs and have fun with imaginative play. Young children soon learn through play and following the adventures of an imaginary character or learning nursery rhymes in Spanish, French or Italian is fun.

Language lessons should never be formal at this age. Children pick up new words and sounds incidentally through play, which is more effective than traditional learning strategies taught at school. Click here to learn more about teaching older kids how to learn complex grammar and verb conjugations.

Enroll Kids in Extra Curricular Activities

Look for extracurricular classes in your local community where your child will be exposed to a foreign language. Dance classes with a foreign instructor will teach your kids language skills as they learn to dance. The language learning is incidental, which is the best way. If you live in a multi-ethnic area, finding classes taught by a native speaker should be fairly easy.

If you don’t have a native speaker in your immediate circle, tune the radio to a foreign language channel and leave it on during the day. Infants will pick up sounds and, in time, learn new words. However, without visual and social cues, it will take them longer to develop language skills.

Language Software Packages

Kids spend more time online than ever these days, so it makes sense to take advantage of a language software app or program to introduce your child to a second language. Older kids in particularly will find language apps and software games fun to use outside of school language lessons.

Look for an app that is age appropriate for your child. Download it onto their iPad or smartphone and they can practice their language skills at home or out and about. The best apps are interactive, as this helps younger kids to engage with the learning experience.

If you want an older child to learn a second language, have a go at learning together. Sign up for a class or invest in a language program such as Rosetta Stone. You can practice vocabulary together and bond through the mutual learning experience.

One final strategy for teaching your child a second language is to relocate to a foreign country and send them to school with native speakers. It is a ‘sink or swim’ approach, but within a year, your child should be proficient in the new language.