Top tips for teaching kids a foreign language

By Elaine, London mum of 1 toddler, French speaker and erstwhile teacher of English as a foreign language teacher for kids and adults.

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As a French speaker, I have first hand experience of the importance of learning other languages, how it not only opens career doors but how it also opens your mind to other ideas and other cultures. Studies have found that “bilingual brains are more flexible, more creative, and better at problem solving.” Surely we want that for our kids!

You may be wondering why we should introduce a new language at an early stage rather than simply waiting for language classes to start at secondary school. Well, by introducing a language in early childhood, you will be making the job a lot easier for them as “young children will acquire a second bilingual language in a natural and effortless way, in the same way they would acquire their first language.”

Convinced? Try some of these top tips for introducing your child to the joys of language learning:

Pocoyo-Hero_700x39411. YouTube is your new best friend

YouTube is a great resource for language learning, for all ages. You can use it to watch cartoons in other languages, from old favourites, like Peppa Pig, to new ones, such as Pocoyo, which is great for little kids and available in a variety of languages (Stephen Fry narrates the English version, so you know it’s a winner!) You can also find nursery rhymes and songs in other languages, often accompanied by the words so you can sing along!

2. Embrace technology

Apps are great for language learning, and what child would turn down the chance to play on your phone or tablet?? Babble has a great round up of 10 foreign language learning apps and I have just discovered the Flashsticks app, which kids can use to take photos of objects to find out what they are called in other languages and build up their own personalised collection of vocab, or you can do it for them.

3. Consider a foreign language childcare option

If you’re looking for a babysitter or nanny anyway, why not employ a local foreign student to spend a few hours a week (or more!) with your child. Even if you don’t want them to speak to your child 100% of the time in a foreign language, they could introduce some songs, stories or nursery rhymes from their country. Hearing a native accent will help your child to start to recognise and incorporate the sounds and patterns of that language.

4. Repetition

In language learning, repetition is key and this is especially important for young children, as their memory is not as developed. Think about what you do when your child is learning a new word in English: you repeat it back to them as often as possible and find opportunities to use the word. Do the same in the foreign language. Concentrate on a few words at a time and use them as often as you can.

5. Routine

Most children respond well to routine. The British Council suggests establishing a routine for their language learning too, e.g. 15 minutes every day after dinner to read a book in the new language, listen to a couple of songs or play a game. By setting aside this time every day, it will also make sure that you don’t forget!

6. Find a local foreign language class or playgroup

The great thing about joining a class or playgroup is that this will normalise the new language for your child, who will play with other kids and have fun while absorbing the language. These types of sessions vary massively from super relaxed affairs run by a local bilingual mum, involving a few simple songs and perhaps story time, to structured classes with a curriculum. Try any different ones on offer and see what suits your child best. And if there isn’t one near you, you could always set one up!

Peppa French7. Books

With the internet at our fingertips, we can find all sorts of foreign language books that would have been hard to find when we were kids. Via online book sellers, you can buy books from all over the world in any language you want. And if you can’t get your hands on books in the language you are looking for, or if you’re on a tight budget, you can also try using wordless picture books, and taking turns with your child to describe what’s happening in the picture, as suggested by Bilingual Monkeys.

8. Roleplay

The Fluent in 3 Months blog suggests getting your child a doll or a teddy that only speaks the foreign language (through you of course!) Have play sessions, picnics or tea parties with the doll or teddy and you may well find that your child starts to chatter away in no time. (I love this idea!)

9. Playdates

Organise playdates with families that speak the language you are teaching your child. Be proactive! Just as you would if you were learning a second language yourself, find a ‘conversation’ exchange for your little one. You might well find a local foreign mum who is keen for her child to speak her native tongue with other kids. Try posting on local online forums, Facebook groups or simply asking around to see if you have a friend of a friend who might make good language playdate material!

10. Games

There are all sorts of games you can play in another language, depending on the age of your child. You can try I Spy, Bingo or Guess Who. You can play card games, such as snap using vocabulary flashcards, or board games you already own, and you can search online for instructions on playing games in your target language. Be creative with things you already have at home!

11. Films

Most DVDs have the option to switch the language. You can try Frozen in Spanish or The Little Mermaid in Italian. You can ask your child questions, or just chatter about the movie in general, in your target language.

12. Simply talk

It’s really simple but just talk to your child in the second language. You could go to the supermarket with your shopping list in another language, or make a checklist in your target language of items to spot when you’re out for a walk. The Fluent in 3 Months blog suggests that, for really little babies, mums can take advantage of breastfeeding time to read out loud from whatever book they happen to be reading in the target language or you could simply chatter away to your little one. This will allow your baby to start to pick up the natural rhythm and accent of the language.


Make it fun!

Don’t force it. If your child isn’t in the mood, then leave it and try another day. If you push the issue, you may well find that your child will start to see language learning as a chore rather than a pleasure.

I hope this article has been useful and I would love to hear about your own tips and experience!