I have a middle schooler who used to be my toddler and my guinea pig for all things parenting. Lucky for him, I was obsessed with bilingualism when he was young and we lived in San Pedro, CA, having just said my goodbyes to adventure travel in Central America. Luckily for me, he was a quick study, which made it all the more rewarding and, unwittingly, spurred me on to learn more.
Jack, my muse for language learning who is now teaching me Mandarin, this is what you’ve taught me about teaching and learning:
1. It’s easy when it’s fun!
This, really, cannot be overstated enough. I’m going to come back to this point, but if you were drawing a pictogram, FUN would be the overarching umbrella under which everything else falls. Laugh, smile, and genuinely enjoy the process and your child will too.
2. Eat. Manga (Italian). Coma (Spanish).
The table is the perfect setting for multi-sensory learning: touch, smell, see, taste. Start with “please” and “thank you;” even the youngest can say “more” or “mas.” Then add in one piece of food: cheese, avocado, bread, whatever! It’s all about scaffolding, you are building their language infrastructure so just keep adding on.
“Can I please have ___?”
“I like ____.”
“No, thank you, I don’t like ____.”
3. Sing a goodnight lullaby.
Lullabies are more about the intimate moment than the words. Lullabies are comforting and soothing, so sing in your target language. Just memorize one or sing alongside someone else’s. Even if your child can’t yet decode the meaning of the lyrics, you will make an emotional connection that creates a familiarity and comfort level for your child to receive new information ( i.e. the new language).
4. Do something and name it.
Swing, walk, run, jump, shop, or drive. Whatever it is that you do as an errand or wherever you go, just name that one thing and say “Let’s xxx” or “Vámanos al parque!”
5. Learn key phrases.
Learn key phrases, stick to them, and then insert keywords.
I want ___,
I need ___,
I like ___,
Do you want ___?
Do you need ___?
Do you like__?
6. Ritualize your use in routine settings.
Think about the things that everyone does everyday and turn on your target language at those times. Good morning! Buenos dias! I love you, sweetheart. Te amo, mi amor. Brushing teeth, getting dressed, taking baths, whatever it is, use it as an opportunity to use the target language.
7. Write down 10 times a day that you can use your target language, and do it everyday.
Write down ten sayings and stick to them. In fact, you can make your own little star chart with a reward at the end! Remember that all little ones know about the world is what you introduce them to, so take advantage of this opportunity to introduce them to new words and phrases while they are comforted by your presence.
Here are the ten times each day that I focus on when teaching a new language (or when Jack is teaching me Mandarin!) and their Spanish equivalents:
- Wake up / buenos dias
- Breakfast table / desayunarse
- Daily routines / rutinas diario
- Clothes / ropa
- Play / jugar
- Lunch / almorzar y comida
- Errand or destination / manejo, zoo etc.
- Dinner /cenar y comida
- Bath / baño
- Good night / buenas noches
I know that this isn’t the newest or best parenting trick on the block, but it sure can work. For a while, I would say YES to anything my kids asked me in Spanish, i.e. Can I have a cookie? Sí!
9. Peer motivation is huge!!!
I can’t say enough about this! Best case scenario, you are immersed in your target language so that your kiddo makes friends with fluent speaking little citizens. If that is just not an option, find other friends for you and your child that support your vision. It is so much easier to reinforce our values when surrounded by friends who share the same, and there is no better motivator for any age child than a peer. Try playing tag alone? No fun. With a friend? Hours on end. Make playdates to practice your target language.
Ha, easy plug for Habla Blah Blah here, right? Seriously, though, the science backs it up and you can do it anywhere – in the bath, car, home, shopping, walking… wherever life takes you, you can always sing, and it is contagious!
“The neurological links between language and music are vast but the basic thing to remember is that music activates more parts of the brain than language does, on both the right and left sides of the brain. So if you remember something to a tune, you are more likely to recall the information than if you just read it or heard it spoken,” Susanna Zaraysky.
C’mon parents, the good doctor is basically telling you to do it!
Read more from Amy: