Thanks to all who participated in this discussion on the value of exposing kids to languages and cultures! I offer this final cheat sheet of ideas and resources you can use to inspire more conversation and spark new ideas to help you make language learning a fun and natural experience for your kids.
1) Earlier is better, frequent is best. Exposure to foreign languages can be remarkably beneficial at very early ages—beginning in infancy! But don’t start buying DVDs for every baby you know—research shows that it’s only face-to-face interaction with a speaker of another language that gives infants and toddlers the powerful exposure that hard-wires the sounds of non-native languages in the brain.
And though CDs and DVDs can be helpful in learning a language later in childhood (after the age of two), it’s extremely important to give your kids a chance to try to communicate with others who speak a foreign language. No need to spend a lot of money doing this—instead, leverage every opportunity you have to expose your child to other languages and cultures right in your own town. Some tips:
In addition to finding ways to use the target language, make sure your home is full of opportunities to learn more about other cultures. Fill your home with items and music (radio stations work best!) and food from other places. Visit ethnic restaurants with your kids and have them meet the owners/staff from other countries. If you have young children, check out my friend Homa Tavangar’s book, Growing Up Global for ideas on how to boost your child’s awareness of the world.
3) Don’t be afraid to speak another language to your children, even if it’s not your native tongue. There is a lot of disagreement on this topic, and I have to say that I avoided speaking Japanese to my own kids because I listened to the naysayers and was worried I would taint them with my American accent. I really wish I would have ignored my fear—and so do my kids! Sure, it would be great if you happened to have native fluency, but it’s not required. On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up if, despite your best intentions, you just never got around to speaking your second fluent language to your child(ren). Raising kids is challenging, and though we might think it would be easy to have those dinner conversations in French, the reality is we’re often just too tired or in a rush to make it happen regularly. And for those of you who are trying to stick to the one-parent/one-language approach (husband speaks nothing but his native Russian to the kids, wife speaks nothing but English), I applaud your efforts—but please recognize that the vast majority of parents find this too daunting as well so don’t worry if you get frustrated with those one-sided conversations.
4) In general, choose living languages and focus on the ones that your child shows interest in and/or are most meaningful to your family. Knowing Latin can be helpful (and impressive), but for most parents, the goal is to give their kids exposure to a language they can use to communicate with others. There’s a lot of discussion about which languages are most beneficial or strategic, with many promoting the English/Spanish/Mandarin combo as the best bet. As someone who has lived in South America and is now living in China, I can say that yes, it would be wonderful if I had learned Spanish and Mandarin when I was young—or even a decade ago! And yes, it’s true that in terms of numbers of speakers worldwide, it might make sense to focus on these two languages for your kids. But every family has its own cultural ties, interests, and opportunities, so choose the languages that you feel will give your children the best chances to communicate with others. Oh, and if you really, really want them to learn Spanish but they think French or Italian is more fun, let them choose what they like! Learning ANY language is valuable, but it’ll be easier on everyone if your kids get a say in the matter.
5) More is not necessarily better—but it can be really, really fun. Some families are giving their kids the chance to learn three, four or more languages before the age of ten—and there’s no reason to think this is bad for them. But I do want to say that your kids shouldn’t be forced into this—if they show a natural interest, great, but if they’re fighting you every step of the way, please ease up. And keep in mind that some kids might choose to delve more deeply into one language while others might really enjoy picking up a smattering of half a dozen languages. Let them lead the way.
6) Don’t be afraid to change the approach, the program or the language. Some parents are frustrated when a child who has been interested in one language suddenly decides it’s no longer fun. Kids change—it might not be the language they don’t like but the way they are learning it. Play around with various options and if nothing clicks, let your child pick a different language. Also, note that what works beautifully for one child may bore another one to tears. Be flexible and don’t get too caught up in developing any sort of “system” of language learning. And this: it’s okay to take a break for a few months or even years. You’ll be surprised at how some kids can refuse to take another language lesson and then later decide it’s exactly what they want! Roll with it.
7) Rather than pack your kids’ schedule with after-school lessons in elementary school, send your preschooler to a 100 percent immersion school. Kids learn languages so easily as preschoolers! If you have the chance—and especially if your child is gifted—give them the added challenge and richness of spending time in an immersion environment early on. Kids before the age of six or so learn from a right-brain perspective, so grammar and vocabulary and intonation all flow together naturally. After that age, the left brain kicks into dominant mode (or, at least, the left-brain teaching methodology does!), meaning they tend to rely more on memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules. Even as adults, we learn languages best in a relaxed and playful immersion setting, but we’re rarely given the chance to do so and (unless we happen to be drinking!) our adult egos tend to get in the way of the natural and necessary mistake-making that helps us leap forward. So, unless your kids are already too old, get them into an immersion preschool. The brain benefits will last a lifetime. (NOTE: I didn’t do this, and I wish I had, especially now that I am teaching preschoolers in China and seeing how easily they soak up everything. That being said, my kids became multilingual after the age of 15. So, don’t sweat it if you missed that golden window of language learning—it’s not too late!)
8) Be a host family to a high school student from abroad or rent a room to a foreign college student studying at a nearby university. I’m convinced that the early exposure to other languages our kids had due to the foreign students in our home gave them a huge advantage when they later studied other languages. Most people don’t think about hosting a student until their own kids are in high school, but having a beginning English learner in your home when you have preschoolers or elementary school students can really give your kids a wonderful sense of another place and another language. Don’t worry about trying to speak only English to the foreign student—it is natural to translate and use gestures at this level of learning and this is good for your family AND for the student. (It’s also great fun!) Our lives were enriched greatly by the relationships we had with the many students who lived in our home over the course of nearly 12 years and we continue to stay in contact and swap visits.
9) Consider going abroad as a family. Whether it’s a two-week vacation, a language immersion camp or an extended globe-trotting adventure, giving your children a chance to experience other places firsthand will open their eyes to the wonders of the world and their own possibilities within it.
10) Send your son or daughter on a high school exchange. This can absolutely transform your child’s life and the way they see themselves. It’s not for everyone, but it’s the BEST way to launch an adolescent into young adulthood and give them room to grow, explore, and discover their own talents separate from their habits and friends back home. There are a lot of great programs out there, but I highly recommend Rotary International as a highly-organized and affordable option with great planning, support and follow up. Contact the local Rotary Club in your community for details.
11) Consider a gap year abroad. Though 18 is at the tail end of the span for quick and easy foreign language learning, it’s still possible to become fluent and to open one’s eyes to new opportunities for education and career options. Volunteer, work or study—it doesn’t matter what your son or daughter does while abroad. What matters most is having a chance for an immersion experience (separate from a group of other Americans or English speakers) and spending a significant time abroad—a minimum of six months.
12) Attend a university abroad. The tried-and-true junior year abroad can shift a student’s perspective, but keep in mind that the language learning that’s likely to happen at this age is dramatically reduced when compared to a high school year abroad. Also, juniors in college tend to see a stint abroad as part of their long-term path to graduation and a job and are generally less likely to be open to the experiences that might truly spark their passion.
Spending two or more years attending a college in a foreign country is another option. It’s not as daunting as you might think—my second daughter took classes at six universities in four countries in three languages and still managed to graduate by the age of 20! (She wrote the how-to-transfer-credits bit in my book.) And the total price? Less than a typical year at a private university in the U.S.—travel included!
13) Connect with others who share your values. There will be plenty of people who express concern or even criticize you for committing to your children’s multilingualism. Forget about them! Seek out those who are encouraging and/or are equally committed to finding ways to expose their kids to foreign languages and cultures.
14) Read blogs on the subject of language study and going abroad. Do a blog search on languages or countries you are interested in. You’ll find plenty of people who are studying, volunteering, working and carving out whole new lives in new places—and plenty of tips and even free tutorials offered via blogs by those who are passionate about languages.
And don’t think you have to pay for a pricey package in order to spend time in another country. There are a lot of inexpensive ways (and reasonably-priced destinations). I know many families spending time abroad in all kinds of ways—from extended road trips to bicycling long distances and long-term travel around the world. There’s a way to do whatever it is your family is dreaming about—and it’s likely that another family is doing it already! Find them online—and let them inspire you.
If you need more information on how to handle the details (from choosing a location for your family, picking a study-abroad program, transferring credits, preparing for college admissions, or even finding work abroad), I offer this shameless plug for my book, The New Global Student! It includes a lot of useful tips and some very honest stories from students and parents about spending time abroad in various ways.
Thank you so much for being a bold and loving parent! All kids need an informed advocate and wise mentor, and I applaud you for taking the time to learn about the many options for a thrilling, fulfilling and outrageously relevant global education.
Best wishes and happy trails!
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.