How can I help my children learn a second language when we relocate?
This is a question I am often asked by anxious parents.
Well, there are several things that you can do to facilitate second language acquisition in your children.
Speak your first language at home.
It is important for you to be comfortable with your children, and not to communicate in a language where neither of you can express yourselves freely. This is why I suggest that you speak your first language at home. It is important for you to understand that children actually learn a second language more easily if they have a strong foundation in their mother tongue. I also recommend that your children continue their language learning in your native tongue in parallel to learning the second language.
Lead by example.
It is important that you become a good role model for your children to emulate when learning the host language. Communicate to them through your words and actions that you think learning the language is important and that you are making the effort – and that you expect them to put the same effort into their language learning.
Mistakes are allowed.
Remember that when learning a new language – you will make mistakes. This is just a normal part of the learning process. Sorry – there are no short cuts! So show your kids that you are willing to accept that you will make mistakes in the process of learning.
The ‘silent’ period.
Most children go through a ‘silent period’ when they learn a new language – a time when they will not speak the language, but they are silently absorbing it. This may last as long as six months to 18 months. Be patient and supportive. Your children are experiencing a huge learning curve that may well be very frustrating for them. Some children are embarrassed to make mistakes and wait until they can speak in complete, perfect sentences before their silent period is over.
Look for ways your child can practice the language in private. It feels less risky to speak in small groups or to one person.
Children learn languages faster than adults.
Don’t get upset if your children begin to speak among themselves or answer you in the second language. Again – it is just natural for them to do that. They may also have another upsetting habit – correcting your language! Children often learn the second language more quickly than adults, and will be proud to show you what they have learned.
Remember that your children are actually learning two languages at once. As a result they are likely to be slower at speaking and reading than their friends who are monolingual. Do not panic. They are doing something more difficult. The reward will be knowing two languages and having a deeper understanding of the function of language.
It takes three to seven years to become fluent in a second language. Your child may be speaking competently within six months to a year, but to function fully in school (or for you, in your adult life), it is likely to take much longer.
Older children may take longer than younger children to learn a new language. This is simply because the type of learning they have to master is much more complex, and they have more years of learning to catch up. They also have more subjects to learn in addition to the language. Additionally, older children tend to be more self aware and more shy or anxious about speaking a second language in front of other people.
Motivation is key.
Acknowledge that there is an emotional aspect to learning a second language. If your child is motivated and the language learning is presented to him or her in positive terms – your child will make quicker progress than if he or she is dragged behind to this new country, and is pressurised or criticised as to how quickly he/she is learning the language.
Dr Rona Hart
Dr Rona Hart is an expert in the psychology of change. She has made a career out of empowering people and helping them transform their lives, by shifting unproductive thoughts and behaviours into successful patterns that allow them to generate the outcomes they want to have in their lives.