Tips for teaching young children a second language (by Josefina Garcia)

I get asked lots of questions by parents who are either raising their children to be bilingual or teaching them a second language. Since it’s not an area of my expertise, I asked Josefina Garcia to write a guest post with some top tips for parents on teaching a second language to young children.

In our multicultural society, lots of parents are keen for their children to learn a second language. Teaching a second language to your baby, toddler or pre-schooler is easy and it can be an especially rewarding activity if you embark on learning a new language together.

The benefits of learning a second language are well-researched, in early childhood as well as in adulthood. We all want the best for our children, but is trying to introduce a second language at an early age a step too far?

“Science indicates that babies’ brains are the best learning machines ever created, and that infants’ learning is time-sensitive. Their brains will never be better at learning a second language than they are between 0 and 3 years of age,” says co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS (University of Washington Institute of Learning & Brain Sciences) and a UW professor of speech and hearing sciences.

Therefore, yes, babies can learn a second language, even when they aren’t getting the same language exposure at home from bilingual parents.

So how can we best teach a second language to babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers? Here are some tips on what parents can do to help introduce a second language.

Little and often

Although children are great at picking up another language, they can also be quite good at forgetting it. Therefore, the best way to teach them is little and often. You might only have 20 minutes two morning a week, or even just at the weekends. Children like consistency so make learning together a regular slot. Repetition is key. Repetition is how children learn the sounds, grammatical rules and other linguistic parameters of their first language and any extra language is learned in the same way.

Read books together

Books are a great tool for language learning and children love sharing snuggly book time with parents! Try to find books in the target language – I would recommend simple, picture-focused books. You can also use picture books without words. If you are learning the new language too, look up the vocabulary you will need beforehand if necessary. Start with just single words – point to the pictures and repeat.

Learn through action songs

For babies, I would choose finger play songs. For toddlers and pre-schoolers, choose songs about topics that interest them. The songs should not be too long and the simpler they are the better.

Babies and young children are drawn to the varied intonation and rhythm of singing. The repetition can help them to discriminate between the sounds in the language as well as helping them to acquire new vocabulary. Also, singing can improve auditory memory, the ability to process, retain and recall the things you hear. All these things are crucial for language acquisition.

Watch programmes in a second language

For slightly older children, watching short educational programmes offers the advantage of spreading the language exposure contexts as well as hearing the language from different sources, something that aids the learning process. For example, if your child is learning Spanish, you could watch a programme together, comment on some words or sentences and then find different occasions to repeat those words or sentences, referring back to the programme you watched together.

Look around and take the language with you

When you are walking to the park, going shopping, playing a game, or doing craft activities, remember to point out the new vocabulary. If you are learning the new language together, older children will love to help teach you. Pretend that you have forgotten how to say something in the language you are both learning. If you see they cannot remember either, just say: “was it something like…?” Help them out a bit with the word and, once they say it, praise them for remembering.

I really believe that starting language learning early or learning languages together can be a great experience for you and you children. I wish you the best of luck and do not hesitate in getting in touch if you need further help!

This is a guest post from Josefina Garcia. Josefina is an experienced language teacher and started Nanos Spanish classes and online courses for little ones to follow her belief in the importance of introducing a second language in early childhood. She runs Spanish classes in South West London or you can sign up for her online courses for pre-school children here

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