Helping Your Child Learn a New Language

older man and child reading

Written and Compiled by World Family Education

Not everyone needs to learn a new language when they move to a new culture. But it certainly can help with feeling more at home. Proactive steps to adapt to the local language and culture will have a direct impact on your quality of life after moving abroad.

This is also true for children, and if you want your child to learn a new language, the best time to begin is NOW — even before leaving your passport culture. The sooner they start learning, the sooner they will be ready to interact with native speakers in your new location.

Before You Leave Your Passport Country

Numerous online language sites are great tools to begin learning when you aren’t on site yet. Some of these are FREE, including:

  • Duolingo   Learn a variety of languages for free using drills that require a mix of reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
  • Hello World   Lessons, games, dictionaries, and activities to help children learn 20 different languages. More than 5,000 words taught for each language. Content available in multiple languages.
  • Memrise   Flash-card style language learning in numerous languages. Content is user-generated.

See a longer listing of free language-learning sites at the end of this article.

A great paid site that’s designed just for children is DinoLingo. Offering instruction in more than 50 languages, this language program uses immersion and repetition to help children learn.

The site TCK Training offers some simple, fun ideas for beginning language learning with a child: 5 easy ways you can start learning a new language with your kids.

TCK Training also discusses the benefits of using audio books to support language learning, especially for students who will be in local schools. A couple of sites that provide free audiobooks include Librivox and Open Library. Audible by Amazon.com has a much wider selection of audiobooks, but this is a paid service.

After You Arrive

The approach you take to your child’s language learning once you are in your new location will depend on two questions:

  1. Will the child use the new language only for conversation or will they need a deeper, academic-level understanding of the language?
  2. How old is the child?

If your child will use the language informally, then it’s possible that exposure to natural interactions with native speakers will be enough for them to learn it. Young children (preschool age and younger) especially are likely to learn conversational language this way, especially if they attend a local preschool or play with local friends. The British Council has a great article that describes what to expect as your young child learns a new language, keeping their development in mind.

Children who will use the new language in an academic setting will have to take a more structured approach to learning. This can be done with online instruction and/or a local instructor. A combination of both may be most effective. Another good article by the British Council describes the differences between social and academic English — these differences will apply to any language being learned.

Older children can still learn a new language quickly, especially if they are immersed in it. Some research shows that achieving a native accent is more difficult after a certain age (around 15 years old), but this will not affect language learning ability. In fact a major study of 17,000 British children learning French at school has shown that children who started learning at the age of 11 performed better at second language proficiency tests, compared to those that had started at around 8 years of age.

Even if your child “talks like a native” in everyday situations outside the classroom, they may not be prepared to handle high-level academic tasks in the new language. Written and spoken language in the classroom may be quite different from informal conversation among friends. Research shows that it will take several years for non-native speakers to “catch up” with their native-speaking peers academically while they continue learning the language.

It’s very possible that a child attending school in a second language will struggle academically, and it shouldn’t be assumed they are deficient in intelligence or cognitive development. In fact, research shows that students who know more than one language can actually focus better than their monolingual peers when distractions arise. Instead, parents and teachers must be aware of the special language-related needs of these students. Some helpful articles about this issue are:

Does Bilingualism Cause Language Delay?   Explores the research about language delay in young children when they learn two or more languages.

Multilingual Family: Read This Before You Call the Speech-Language Therapist!  A great tip sheet for deciding if and when to contact a speech-language therapist for the bilingual child.

Language learning is possible for all  Special-needs children can learn a second language, and a parent explores the research — and her real-life experience — that shows this is true.

Retaining the First Language

For some children, retaining their mother tongue may become a challenge if they are immersed in a new language. This can be a problem for several reasons:

  • If the child returns to their home culture at some point, they will need to have strong language skills, especially if they attend university.
  • The child’s ability in a second or third language will likely not progress beyond their skills in the first language. When a child has lower proficiency in both their mother tongue and a second language, they tend to mix the grammar and structure of the two languages and have difficulty expressing themselves in any language.
  • If parents are unable to learn the new language as quickly as their child can, a language barrier may form within the family. Extended family may not be able to communicate as well with the child. This can cause significant relational problems between family members.

It’s important to maintain and foster the first language, and research shows that a strong mother tongue base will actually help a child acquire a new language. Parents can support this in various ways, and here are a few ideas:

  • Keep the mother tongue the predominant language in the home.
  • Teach your child appropriate greetings and key phrases using the languages they know in a variety of settings.  
  • Offer books and other media in the first language, and use games and music to reinforce vocabulary in a fun way.
  • In some locations, children may attend tutoring centers on the weekend that reinforce home culture and language.

“Code Switching”

Both children and adults who are multilingual will, at times, blend the languages they know. This is called “code switching,” and typically a person will begin a sentence with one language and end with another. This is not a sign that the person is confused or should be corrected; it actually shows that the person understands the grammar and vocabulary in both languages.

When a bilingual child code-switches during a conversation, a parent or teacher may respond by being a strong language model, focused on enhancing the child’s vocabulary. They can do this by asking questions, listening responsively, and engaging in conversation the child is interested in — all while using one language. This will help the child process and grow each language they learning while being guided by an adult.

Some information in this article adapted from:
(2001) Second Language Issues. Fitted Pieces (553)
(2001) What Does Research Say about Second Language and ESL Issues? Fitted Pieces (560)

More Helpful Links

Language and TCKs — An international school teacher and mother reflects on the difficult questions parents need to ask about languages and their child.

The Benefits of Multilingualism — A great list detailing how learning another language (or two) is so beneficial.

Expat Children and Language Learning — Practical and developmental implications for children learning another language.

Bilingual Homeschooling: Baby Steps to Biliteracy — Introducing literacy in multiple languages to your baby or toddler.

Bilingual Homeschooling: Reading and Writing in More Than One Language —Tips and personal experience in bilingual homeschooling from a parent.

Websites with Resources and Information

Multilingual Living — A place where parents raising children in more than one language and culture can find inspiration, tools, advice, wisdom and support. A dedicated section for multilingual home education.

The Piri-Piri Lexicon — Maintained by a linguist parent of quadlingual children; extensive resources, tips, stories, community for multilingual families and learning.

Bilingual Kids Spot — Supports family who are raising their children in multiple languages. Offers articles; advice; help with travel; and resources for teaching Chinese, English, or Spanish to children.

Bilingual Monkeys — Ideas and inspiration for raising bilingual kids. Resources, books, and a forum.

Language Lizard — Online shop that sells bilingual books and products for kids in more than 50 languages.

FREE Online Language-Learning Resources for All Ages (some designed for children)

Fun English Games — Activities, worksheets, videos, and games for English-language learners. Includes classroom activity ideas for English language teachers.

Learn English Kids — Created by the British Council and teaches all ages of children, including teens. Also includes section for English teachers and resources for finding English courses in your location.

IXL — Thousands of exercises designed to help students (kindergarten–grade 12) practice a variety of academic skills including Spanish. Site also includes a paid membership program.

Live Lingua — Free ebook and audio courses. Learning can be advanced with paid Skype instruction in 11 languages.

Kids Web Japan — Kids can learn about Japanese culture and language with lots of photos, articles, maps, games, videos, etc. Includes a built-in site translator for multiple languages.

Voyage Kids Kids can learn some introductory German with activities, articles, pictures, etc.

Online Free Spanish — Colorful site to help anyone learn basic to advanced Spanish and is very kid-friendly.

French Games — Games and lessons for beginners learning French.

Lifeprint — Teaches American Sign Language with video instruction produced by the American Sign Language University.

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