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How to Teach Your Child a Foreign Language

Have you ever marveled at people who speak a second (or even third or fourth) language as fluently as their first? Well, it may be that these folks have a special aptitude for languages. But the truth is, we all have the capacity to learn a foreign tongue -- particularly if we start at an early age. If you want your child to be bilingual (or even multilingual), here's how to begin.

Every infant is born with the ability to mimic the sounds of any language. But by the time a baby is about 10 months old, he begins to narrow down the range of sounds to those that he hears around him. So if you want your child to learn a second language, it's best to introduce it in the first year of life. If you are a bilingual family (or have a bilingual caregiver), have one parent (and/or caregiver) speak the second language to the baby all the time so he has a chance to become fully "immersed" in it.

If you haven't begun the second language in the first year, it's best to wait until your child is about 2-1/2 -- or until after he has undergone a "vocabulary explosion" in his first language, which generally begins at 18 to 20 months.

If your child doesn't have the chance to learn a second language at home, you can enroll her in a language class for children. Some schools offer "Mommy & Me" classes for kids as young as age 2 (why not take the opportunity to brush up on your high school French?); while others provide classes for the preschool and school-age set.

When looking for a class, make sure it meets the following criteria:

  • It is taught by a native speaker. Children who learn a foreign language before the onset of puberty have the potential to speak it with a near-native accent. That's why it's particularly important for kids to learn to repeat words and phrases properly. You should also try to find a class in which the teacher speaks the foreign language exclusively in the classroom (no English!) and immerses the students in its sounds.
  • It is fun and engaging for kids. A good children's class should use songs, arts and crafts, games, and other child-friendly activities to teach language. In a preschool Spanish class, for instance, an instructor might give the students toy farm animals to play with, while teaching a song about them in Spanish. Older kids might focus on activities such as cooking, puppetry, and folk dancing to build conversation and vocabulary skills and learn about the native culture.
  • It is the right size and length for your child. Some schools offer private lessons, which allow children to learn at an individual pace, as well as group lessons, which can include six to eight kids at a time. Classes can also range in length, from, say, 45 minutes to 90 minutes or longer. Before you enroll your child in any program, ask whether you can observe a class so that you can decide whether it's the right one for your child -- and whether he will enjoy it over time.

While classes can provide a good foundation for language learning, you'll want to reinforce the concepts at home. Here are some ways to keep the spirit alive:

  • Introduce your child to foreign-language picture books, videos, tapes, CDs, and TV shows geared toward young children.
  • Search the Web for foreign-culture sites -- like Paris.org -- that can be viewed in English and a foreign language.
  • Walk through the ethnic foods department of a supermarket and look at labels; also sample native foods in restaurants and at home.
  • Label household objects in a foreign language, and practice identifying them.
  • Invite guests who are fluent in other languages.
  • Help your child find an overseas pen pal.

Why should you encourage your child to study a second language? Researchers have found the following:

  • Children who study languages are more imaginative, better with abstract ideas, and more flexible in their thinking.
  • They have a greater sensitivity to language and a better ear for listening.
  • Studying a foreign language improves a child's understanding of his own native language.
  • It opens the door to other cultures and helps the child understand and appreciate people from other countries.
  • It can help him feel connected to his own heritage.
  • It's a lot of fun!

Sources: Zero to Three; Berlitz Language Centers; LinguaKids, LLC; John Bonvillian, PhD

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.