Many people will tell you that it's easier for kids to learn a new language than adults. They might also say to you that children's brains are better at learning than grown-up ones. While there is some truth in those statements, it's not entirely true.
It's not uncommon for families to communicate in more than one language these days. As a result, parents often attempt to teach their children the other languages they speak. For the most part, they are successful in doing so.
If you speak languages other than English, you may well have a desire for your kids to be multilingual too. With that in mind, you might assume that you have a reasonably easy task ahead of you. But, the truth is that learning a new language as a child can become a complicated concept.
The challenges kids face when learning new languages
It is a widely accepted fact that children are more receptive to learning than adults. If you are wondering whether your offspring can learn a new language with ease, this answer is "sort of."
Kids are learning about the world from the day they are born. They are still trying to make sense of things as they get older, and their communication skills develop too.
For the most part, your child may absorb what you teach him or her. And while they will often understand simple words or phrases, they may sometimes go "silent" on you! That means they might not have reached the stage of repeating words or phrases with ease.
As you may have started to conclude, learning a new language as a child can be a complicated affair. So, what are the challenges that children face?
Pronouncing foreign words and phrases
Even by the age of five, children often struggle with certain words or phrases in English. As you can imagine, the same will apply to different languages too.
Your child will eventually learn how to pronounce those tricky words. If you give them the time and encouragement to do so, they will get there.
Of course, some children might struggle more than others. In those cases, it might be beneficial to seek the expert help of a speech therapist. They can determine where your child is struggling and work with them to improve their pronunciation.
It's no secret that some languages have grammatical gender. English is often the most straightforward language in that respect, as there are only a few traces of gender marking. Now take German, for example.
Both English and German come from the same branch of languages (West Germanic). But, German has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.
Some children may struggle to grasp such a concept. Indeed, many adults, too - especially those with English as their native language!
Having the time to practice a second language
The old saying, "practice makes perfect," is true when talking about learning a new language. Spending more time talking in a foreign tongue helps you to develop your understanding of it.
Parents may express a desire for their kids to learn the language spoken within the family. If those parents don't dedicate enough time to the cause, the children will struggle to become fluent.
Six ways to help improve your child's language learning journey
The previous paragraphs will no doubt have served as a reminder to how you struggled as a child. Of course, it can be hard to remember the things your parents did to teach you a second language.
If you can't remember how you improved your language learning, the following might jog your memory. These tips will serve as useful ideas to parents that might be unsure what to do next.
1. Don't stress yourself or your child out
A parent's determination for their offspring to learn the "family language" could put undue pressure on the child. You must remember that learning a new language should be a fun experience - not a stressful one.
You must work with your child if they are having difficulties in their learning. You can't expect them to be a linguistic master with only a few weeks of tuition!
Instead, identify the areas where they are struggling and help them overcome those stumbling blocks. For instance, if they cannot pronounce words in your native tongue, seek the help of an expert. Speech therapy in Sydney is an excellent first port of call when looking for external support.
Another example of a learning stumbling block might be memory. You could use visual aids such as flashcards to help your child remember words and phrases.
2. Don't make it a formal thing
Language is all around us; it doesn't need to be in a classroom setting. Yes, it is all about teaching your child to speak another language. But, the tuition doesn't need to resemble anything like in a school setting.
Instead, make it a casual learning journey. Some examples of what you and your child could do include:
Watching TV programmes in the language you wish your child to learn;
Spending lots of time with family members and friends that speak the language;
Attend social gatherings such as playgroups.
Kids tend to "soak up" new foreign words and phrases by mimicking what they hear. It might surprise you to see how quickly they pick up those words and phrases in such settings!
3. Work with someone that offers speech therapy for kids
You might not realise it, but a speech pathologist could be a good investment for your youngster. Some people may find it hard to explain to a child how to make certain sounds. When learning a new language, it's essential to get the pronunciation right.
You will no doubt have a wish for your child to become fluent, just as you have become. Speech pathology in Sydney is an ideal way of helping your child learn hard-to-pronounce words! Plus, you may discover new ways of describing sounds made in your language for certain words.
It may even convince you to get speech therapy for adults sessions if you sometimes struggle too.
4. Don't put your expectations too high
As a parent, you will no doubt have high hopes for your child's education. That will also extend to their learning of your family's language.
While there is nothing wrong with having expectations, it can be an issue if your hopes are too high! Yes, there is plenty you can do to help your offspring learn and retain new words and phrases. But, the last thing you want to do is make your child feel like they are failing you all the time.
As you can appreciate, such an approach is likely to make them have issues with confidence. They will then be far less likely to want to learn a new language.
5. Mistakes will happen
Part of the process for learning something new is making mistakes. Your child will inevitably make errors, such as using word orders in the wrong language.
Don't worry, though, because that is all part of the learning process. When those mistakes happen, help your child to understand where they went wrong and why.
When they do make mistakes, remind yourself they are learning a lot of new things right now. As such, they will "slip up" every so often. Mistakes will always happen; there is nothing you can do to avoid that part of the process!
6. Use technology to your child's advantage
Earlier in this topic, mentions got made of using TV programmes as an example to learn a new language. Given that we live in a digital age, it makes sense to use other technology to your child's advantage too.
Tablet devices, for instance, are inexpensive these days. They also give you access to a plethora of "apps" or software for just about anything!
If you didn't already know, the Google Play and Apple App Store have hundreds, even thousands of apps dedicated to learning a new language.
There is also a variety of fun games to play in different languages too. They aren't necessarily made to teach them. Instead, words and phrases get displayed on-screen or spoken in different languages.
What does science tell us about children learning new languages?
The information you have read here so far will no doubt have given you some food for thought. But, what is the science behind linguistic learning as a child?
According to a research paper by L. R. Gleitman, we are biologically predisposed to learning new languages. We learn languages simply from observation. And that is something that ties in with what was spoken about earlier on this page.
Another interesting scientific take is from the field of neurobiology. As we age, our brain's ability to create neurons gets reduced. What does that all mean, you might be asking yourself?
Well, neurons are types of cells that transmit data to other cells. In a child's brain, neurons are more abundant than in adult brains. The mind of a child will also restructure itself, in some respects, to accommodate new data. It doesn't happen as much when you are an adult, and that's why adults find it harder to learn new languages than kids.
Motivating your child to learn a new language
It's no secret that children are naturally curious. They like finding out about things and learning new skills. It doesn't matter whether they observe you cleaning your car or building a house. They want to know what you are doing and how you do it!
What that means is children will already have some motivation to learn a new language. And that is especially true in a bilingual household. But, what can you do to motivate your child to learn your mother tongue?
You will have read a few examples already on this page. Of course, there are plenty of ways to give them the drive they need to learn. Here are a few more things that you can all try:
Ask them questions in the language they are learning
One of the ways you can motivate your child in their language learning journey is by talking to them! To be more precise, engage them in conversation by asking simple questions. They could be things like, "what would you like to eat?" or "shall we go to the park today?".
Take your family on a trip abroad
Many people will no doubt agree that one of the best ways to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. You can do that by being around folks that only speak that language!
Going on a family holiday or trip abroad will benefit your child in a few things. For a start, they will have full exposure to the language you wish them to learn. Second, it will inspire your offspring to want to learn more. And, third, they get to continue learning the language away from home.
Play games with your child without speaking in English
It doesn't matter whether you play a game like Twister or Monopoly. Whichever game is their favourite, encourage them to play it without talking to you in English.
To some parents, that might sound like a strange concept. But, it will help them memorise key words and phrases in your chosen language.
If you are a little nervous about such an activity, start with an easy game like Hangman. Or, you could play a guessing game like Pictionary, where you start drawing an object, and your child has to guess what it is.
Whatever game(s) you choose, one thing is for sure: it will be an exciting time for all involved!
Engage with them when they are in a happy mood
Last, but not least, don't expect your son or daughter to feel like learning a new language if they are grumpy. It's vital that you only motivate or encourage them to learn if they are in a happy mindset.
Otherwise, you could both end up feeling frustrated - and that's something you need to avoid!