How to Teach Kids Foreign Language Skills (at home)

Want to help your kids learn another language from home? Looking for ideas to nurture a love for foreign languages? Even if you don’t speak the target language, how can you help your child learn the sounds and syntax?

If you’ve been quarantined away from school and work recently, you understand how interconnected our world has become.

Within weeks, one new viral strand moved across the globe. Our world today is connected not just through airlines and cruise ships, but also through the internet and social networks.

Which is why now— more than ever — knowing more than one language can open countless doors.

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As we become bilingual, we expand our own access to communication.

In addition to helping us pursue our own interests, being bilingual helps us:

  • Learn how to be flexible thinkers and problem solvers

With all these positive outcomes, getting children started on their language journey is crucial. The younger we begin learning a language, the easier we adapt to form new phonetic sounds.

Children understand that they don’t know everything.

As a result, children are still open to new experiences and receiving correction, which makes them great language learners. Of course, the right environment helps foster this love of learning in both young and old.

So how can you — as an adult — help your children or grandkids or classroom students become interested in learning another language?

Here are a few tips to get started:

1. Music

From toddlers to teenagers, songs are an easy way to capture attention. A simple YouTube search of “children’s songs in German” comes back with multiple hits. You can also search for “educational songs in Spanish” or “pop songs in Chinese”.

Whatever language you want your student learning, putting on music in the target language helps the brain connect the sounds with rhythms that make pattern recognition more likely.

Singing back a tune in another language also helps the brain understand that the sounds hold meaning.

Choosing common tunes like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” allows the brain to connect the new words to already understood meanings.

Even older learners benefit from repetition of childhood songs, but you can also look for pop or rock songs that might better fit the age group you are working with.

If learning time is limited, music pairs great with other activities. You can always play music in the background while exercising, creating art, or cleaning. In this way, you can pair language learning with other skills.

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2. Shows

Google your favorite children’s cartoons in the target language. Clips from Peppa Pig to Pokemon can be found on YouTube. And if you have older learners, the Simpsons has garnered worldwide attention in multiple languages.

I suggest starting with cartoons because the mouth movements and sounds are easier to match and less distracting than watching overdubbing.

For older learners, however, try searching some older sitcoms like Friends and The Office to see if you can find them in your target language.

You might also look for original shows in the desired language. Netflix or other online platforms usually have a section for foreign-language content.

You can start by using subtitles to understand the characters and main plot, but then turn off the subtitles.

Let your ears and mind absorb the visual content paired with the language sounds. By watching shows in another language, TV time can be used for educational purposes.

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3. Vocabulary Matching

One activity that uses movement is looking up names for common household items. Choose a different room each week (living room, kitchen, dining room, bathroom, bedroom, closet, office).

Make a list of the items in the room (sofa, TV, pillow, rug, carpet, floor, wall, light, table, phone, internet, modem, DVD player, picture, mirror, painting, window, blinds, curtains, light switch, door, doorknob). Look up the item names in the target language.

Make colorful note cards, with the English term on one side and the word in the new language on the other side. You can attach them to the objects with easy-to-remove adhesive as live flash cards to review each day while in the room.

If you don’t want to use an adhesive on the cards, turn it into a daily game. Each morning, hand out the cards and see if your child can bring them to the right object. At the end, they can turn over the cards to check if they matched the words with the correct items.

Whatever objects they missed, they must re-assign and check again until all the cards are on the correct item. Once they have learned all the object names in one room, put on a timer to see how long it takes them each day to label all the items correctly. Or, each time a word is missed, they have to start over from the beginning.

This activity can be expanded to each room in the house and create days or weeks of learning.

Once the objects in all the rooms are learned, add in adjectives like colors, sizes, textures and locations. In this way, the living room sofa can later become “the soft, gray and brown large sofa in the corner”.

Of course, first tackle the nouns. Then, each week you can add in a new element to all the nouns in one room.

Again, once all the colors of the items are learned, move to the next room. Then, return to the first room and add colors and size and so on.

Through constant repetition, the words of common household items will become more and more familiar.

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4. Conversation phrases

For school-age children, look up common phrases you use every day. Some suggestions are: “good morning, make your bed, get dressed, open the window, turn off the alarm, close the door, turn on the light, brush your teeth, push in the chair, good afternoon, eat your food, wash the dishes, wash your hands, bless you, goodnight”.

Look up the phrases in the new language and repeat them when you are doing the actions.

As always, start small. Begin with two phrases like “good morning” and “goodnight”. Once you know those, add in two more like “good afternoon” and “good evening”.

You can have your child search how to pronounce the phrases correctly. There are many learning channels on YouTube for these simple conversational phrases.

Choose a video with the target phrases, have your child repeat and learn the two phrases.

Let your child guide you in the pacing.

They might learn in 10 minutes or in three days, but let them really learn how to say the two chosen phrases. Once they know their phrases, let them be the teacher.

Being the teacher helps to really solidify the phrasing and mouth shape because they need to explain it to others.

They can teach another sibling, parent, relative, or family friend. If the child chooses to teach an adult, seeing the adult comfortable making mistakes and asking for help is important.

Model how the learning process happens and that we as adults don’t know everything! This is a great example of how we are constantly learning.

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5. Virtual teachers

If your child is ready for the next level, you can look for online teachers. Today there are many platforms dedicated to teaching children languages from Spanish to Cantonese.

The platforms connect your child to native speakers around the world. Most of the online platforms follow current educational standards requiring a degree and background check.

Of course, the nice thing is you can always sit with your child to observe the class without having to participate. And unlike traditional classrooms, if one teacher doesn’t work out, you can always try another one.

But the real advantage of online learning is that it can be done from the comfort and safety of your own home.

During virtual classes, your child will be able to perfect pronunciation and learn communication skills. In addition, you can ask the online teacher to explain some of the cultural elements such as food, holidays, or popular sports.

In this way, your child not only learns another language but also to appreciate another culture.

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Even for adults, these same strategies work well for language learning. While encouraging your child’s love of learning, remember you also can learn another language! Enjoy the adventure by looking for creative ways to engage with a new language.

What do you think? Are you ready to help expand your child’s imagination and creativity? Have you already tried any of these ideas at home? What worked? What didn’t work?

Let’s get started helping our children expand their creativity, empathy, and future job skills. You now have the tools to model interactive language skills at home. You can be the difference!