How do I teach my child a foreign language?
January 29, 2006 8:39 AM   Subscribe

How to teach my child a foreign language (English)?

My daughter is 2.5. We are thinking about homeschooling, but even if we are not going to do that, I think it is useful for her to know more languages. She seems interested in language (she likes the alphabet, little word games, rhymes etc.). We are Dutch, so that's not terribly useful in a globalized world. I want to start with English.

My questions are:

* At what age should we start?
* What method do you recommend? I want it to be fun for both of us, and I prefer something that does not rely (much) on tv or computers.

I know it is recommended to go to a class, but there are no foreign language classes for children where I live, and the few adult classes that are there, are not much fun. My own English is OK. I can read it as if it were Dutch, but my writing and speaking are not so good yet.
posted by davar to Education (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't recommend going to a class, I would recommend as much immersion as possible. It sounds like hanging out in english-speaking neighbourhoods is a no-go and if you say there are no language classes, there are probably no immersion programs either.

Start talking to your daughter in English (instead of Dutch). Your English will improve rapidly (take a class at the same time if you like). I know lots of parents who've successfully used this method to teach their kids languages.

Start ASAP.
posted by duck at 8:47 AM on January 29, 2006

As duck said, start now. Immersion is key. If you can't find any programs, try the "one parent, one language" approach: have one parent speak to your daughter in exclusively English and the other in Dutch. Here's a quick (somewhat reductionist) list on introducing children to a second language from eHow. You might be interested in browsing the literature on the subject as well; there's a ton of linguistic research on the acquisition of a second language.
posted by youarenothere at 9:03 AM on January 29, 2006

I can read it as if it were Dutch, but my writing and speaking are not so good yet.

You may be underestimating your abilities. If you wrote this question, your English writing is better than 90% of the North Americans I've ever received email from...
posted by Gortuk at 9:32 AM on January 29, 2006

To further answer your first question:

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has an article on acquiring English as a second language. Wikipedia has a good summary of the research done to date on critical period. The idea is that there is a window during which a child must begin to learn a second language, else complete fluency will never be acheived. It's generally accepted that the eariler a child begins, the better, but there isn't much conclusive evidence to support an absolute cut-off point. The Wikipedia article notes that there is probably "...a younger critical age for learning phonology than for syntax," which makes sense.

If you have access to academic journals, check out some the papers listed in this bibliography of papers that discuss Second Language Acquisition.
posted by youarenothere at 9:46 AM on January 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't do that if your English is not perfect as your daughter will adopt your accent and the errors you make and will have a hard time getting rid of that later.
There are special English courses for Dutch children, I have no idea how good those are but maybe you could give them a try?
posted by snownoid at 9:58 AM on January 29, 2006

i seem to recall that on some show (probably BBC's) they explained that our brains are geared towards acquiring language until the age of 10 or 12. afterwards we loss this ability little by little.
They explained that at those ages the learning process is done on a more basic level of the brain rather than by "proper" schooling methods.
Its listening to the language.
This is for example the reason why most westerns fail to to notice the nuances in far eastern languages and vice versa. our brain disposes of those abilities because they are not required.

So i think like the others - start early and try teaching by simply immersing your daughter in the language she should learn it by picking up the connotations and trial and error.
posted by sierra13 at 10:06 AM on January 29, 2006

I know that you said that you didn't want to rely on tv much, but maybe things like English language versions of Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, etc. on (media of your choice) would be helpful as a supplement?

It's not immersion, but would also expose your child to age-appropriate vernacular language that doesn't always find its way into classes.
posted by stefnet at 10:20 AM on January 29, 2006

Listening to English a lot, casually, is the easiest way for your child to get familiar with it. You could look up your local homeschooling groups, and see if you can find other parents that speak English/want to teach English to their children. Often homeschooling parents will organize learning activities together (for instance, field trips, or teaching each other's children particular subjects such as art or music, to name a couple). At least you might be able to arrange playdates with other people that speak English.

Another idea would be to advertise for someone to speak English with you and your child, sort of a trade-off, you will go on an outing together and practice your English, the other person can practice their Dutch. Universities and immigration assistance centers are good places to look for people that want to share language learning.

I understand your reluctance to use too much TV, but most people I know that acquired a second language did pick up a lot from TV. My friends that moved to Latin America as children told me they learned Spanish mostly from playing with other kids - and watching cartoons. Movies on DVD are great for me to practice my Spanish, because I can turn on subtitles or dubbing in different combinations (Spanish subtitles, Spanish dubbing with English subtitles, dubbing without subtitles).

Try music - tapes or CDs of songs in English in the car, or at naptime. I sing songs in Spanish to my children, just as my father sang to me when I was little.
posted by Melinika at 11:20 AM on January 29, 2006

I'm Dutch, and my mom taught me English at home before me moved abroad so I'd have a head start at language class. I was 7 at the time, and had been reading since I was 3, so she just got me a lot of simple English books from the library. I remember reading Curious George at that time. I also watched Disney movies in English (with subtitles, but not dubbed) and we just practised some basic sentences.
But I knew I was going to go to an American school after summer, and I was very motivated myself to learn the language. I don't know how easy it would be for you to keep your kid motivated to speak English when she's not using it.
posted by easternblot at 1:05 PM on January 29, 2006

(Any typos (me=we) are my fault - not the fault of my mom teaching me English at an early age)
posted by easternblot at 1:07 PM on January 29, 2006

My son is Hungarian, but I spoke English exclusively to him while he was growing up. His Mom speaks Hungarian although she is fluent in English. He didn't switch to speaking English until he was four, and only after a trip (with his Hungarian Mom but without me) to the US. However, he was addicted to Thomas the Tank Engine and other American children's videos. He taught himself to read at four using an AMerican phonetics toy.

Not all that surprising. What is surprising is that now he is twelve, and he has another little sister who is four. She has been around English a bit - my son sometimes speaks to his Mom in English and watches English videos a lot - and now she has become attached to Thomas the Tank Engine videos. And when she plays with his old Thomas train toys she speaks English....

Games, videos, talking books, and of course, the Cat in The Hat....
posted by zaelic at 1:15 PM on January 29, 2006

Thanks for your responses so far, they have been very helpful. I actually considered doing the one-parent-one-language method before she was born, but thought it would not be a good idea, because my English is not perfect. I am not concerned at all by her picking up my accent, I think it is inevitable that she'll have an accent (unless I remarry an Englishman, maybe). But what's the right pronounciation anyway? People from New York, Texas and London all have different accents as well. I am concerned about her picking up my errors.

snownoid: I found, and there are probably others, but my understanding is that they are geared towards 11-12 year olds, and I would like to start earlier than that. Do you have any specific method in mind?

Melinika: I like your idea! I could try to find an exchange student.

easternblot: That's so cool, I never heard of anyone that learned that kid English before. You're right that it is different because you were moving abroad. Most people here seem to think it is way too pushy to want to teach your child a foreign language (that's why I liked the links to eHow and Wikipedia). I like the idea of reading English books to her, and reading them together when she can read herself.

I found two methods that teach young children English: helendoron and muzzy. Does anybody have any experience with those or other methods? I am not against tv, but I do not want it to be the main way of learning. Muzzy seems highly recommended though, but it seems very basic (body parts, eating/drinking, greetings, colors, days of the week, etc.), and I wonder if I can't just 'teach' her those concepts by reading books etc.
posted by davar at 1:57 PM on January 29, 2006

Davar: I wouldn't worry about her picking up your errors, expecially if you read to her a lot. If you think about it for a moment, there are probably millions of children in the world who rarely heard their "first language" spoken relatively error-free until they started school. All those immigrant parents speaking to their kids in the language of their adopted country grow up speaking that language just as well as every other native speaker.

It's obviously a little different because even before school, there are some immersion aspects (like everytime you go out somewhere, you hear people speak the language). But another part of this is that they may not hear the more correct forms in books and on tv and tapes etc.

Talk to your daugher in English (exclusively, ideally), get her a bunch of books in English and read them to her. Lots of CDs of nursery rhymes and kids songs in english (I love Raffi, but whatever works) and think about getting some of those books with CD things (you know, where it dings and you turn the page), so that a native speaker reads to her as well.
posted by duck at 2:20 PM on January 29, 2006

I saw an advertisement for such a course on tv a while ago but I don't remember the name and I don't know whether it is any good.
Children pick up accents at this age really quickly, so it actually is evitable for her to have one but I can understand why you are not so concerned about that.
I think the idea with the exchange students is really good, I'm a foreign student in the Netherlands myself (but neither a native speaker of English nor located near you) and I would love to do something like that.

Duck: There are a lot of immigrant children who by the time they start school are not able to speak the language of the country they live in without making errors because they grew up in a community where most people are not native speakers.
Language learning is based on the extraction of regularities, if there are systematic errors in the "input", the child will learn those, too (how could it not?).
Since language learning is (assumend to be) based on statistics, it takes quite a lot of correct input to counterbalance that.
posted by snownoid at 2:58 PM on January 29, 2006

Duck: There are a lot of immigrant children who by the time they start school are not able to speak the language of the country they live in without making errors because they grew up in a community where most people are not native speakers.

Agreed...some haven't learned the language of the adopted country at all when they start school. But they grow up to speak the language as well as any other native speaker. (who cares how well they speak when they're 4. How well do they speak when they're 25?)

Again, part of this is because they experience lots of immersion in the language of the country outside of their homes, but I think part of it is reading and music and such too.

Also, I would add that "in this globalized world" being able to speak English without a thought (i.e. without having to grasp for words or work out the grammer) but with errors, is probably more of an advantage than speaking English error-free but struggling to do so.

Weighing the different factors I would say that starting early, even if mom or dad makes some errors is better than waiting to find a teacher or environment that will be error free.
posted by duck at 3:41 PM on January 29, 2006

snownoid: you're probably thinking about Muzzy. At least, I read on a Dutch parenting site about a commercial for Muzzy (parents hated it, haven't seen it myself).
Do you really think her developing a foreign accent is avoidable, even if she does not spend much time with native speakers (even if the exchange student idea works out, that would probably not be enough)?
posted by davar at 3:43 PM on January 29, 2006

Find a college student in Amsterdam who can babysit your daughter and speak English with her.

Also, Sesame Street is very educational and very good.

And lastly, get books! Read to her in English every night. And when she learns to read, buy bilingual books.
posted by anjamu at 12:27 AM on January 30, 2006

Oh, and snownoid, since you are an exchange student yourself, do you have any suggestions on the best way to find somebody that i can trust?

I am still unsure, but this thread has been very helpful and motivating. It is so great that nobody said Don't do that you pushy parent. You're child will have to learn lots of things soon enough, let her enjoy her childhood. You just want to show off and say look at my child, isn't she smart, don't you?. I am very motivated to make it work, now. I do not think I'll speak English to her exclusively, but I now think duck may be right, maybe it is not so bad if her English is not perfect.
posted by davar at 12:37 AM on January 30, 2006

I'm an English teacher for kids in Japan. My biggest successes are the kids that are in my class for at least four days a week, with one dedicated hour of "lesson time" and another three involving craft, the park, and lunch. Setting aside time each day (or a set couple of days a week) for English Only helps provide structure, helps their minds enter "English Mode". It doesn't have to be only "Lesson Time". Everything helps. During this time, be sure to use only English-- if they ask you questions in Dutch, answer clearly in English. I was shocked the other day when my student (3 years old) said "That's enough." I didn't teach him that, it's his own.

Teaching young kids successfully involves three things: patience, repetition, and praise. Let them make mistakes. Tell them they're doing a great job. Ask them tons of questions, even after you know they know the answer. (What color is this? Pink? Good! Well...what color is THIS? Pink, too? Great job!)

Mostly: Have fun!
posted by simonemarie at 7:10 AM on January 30, 2006

I teach Corean high school students SAT-prep, and they typically score above 2000 on the new 2400-point test (hell, last week one of my "stars" rocked a 2370). I'm constantly impressed that their English skills far surpass most native speakers'. did they do it?

When I've quizzed them about how they've achieved such mastery of English, their anwers have invariably included starting early (usually with some Muzzy variation); having access to native speakers in some form (in Corea, usually teachers at a private academy, kindergarten, or preschool); and, especially among those of my students with extremely advanced skills, a well-developed love of reading books in English.

Many of my students have told me that when they were young, say, elementary school, they read English books that had been translated into Corean, but liked the originals better, which caused them to seek out more English-language books.

Reading is a real cornerstone of progressing beyond competence and into mastery. A well-read person develops a much richer understanding of vocabulary than a person who studies vocabulary lists, absorbs facets of grammar that are hard to teach (this is English, after all), acquires hard-to-learn comfort with a wide variety of sentence structures, and gains the very useful skill of reading quickly and accurately. Woefully, this is precisely the area in which I failed to progress in Spanish, and my lack of ability to enjoy reading in Spanish is why I can only communicate at a basic level in the language.

As much as I bemoan English as a universal language (I still hope, Zamenhoff!), the facts on the ground are the facts on the ground. It could be worse, I guess, Mandarin Chinese would be a bitch.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:07 AM on January 30, 2006

Muzzy is fun, but I wouldn't spend the money purchasing it. It's a good supplement if it's available at the library or someone you know has it.

I'd suggest finding an English-speaking nanny.
posted by radioamy at 11:39 AM on January 30, 2006

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