How was your experience learning a foreign language? How many did you learn? How well do you speak them today? Which ones did you pick up easily and which ones did you find difficult? Did it have anything to do with how they were taught to you?

What many people might not realise is that the mechanism in your brain that allows you to learn languages is the same for your mother tongue as it is for other languages.  Many people also feel that learning a second or third language must be more difficult than it was to learn their first language. That is because the first language is usually acquired in a more intuitive way from birth on, while other languages are usually added later in life. By then we have established a certain way of studying, which we apply to learning new languages as well. If you have ever taken a language course in the country where the language is spoken, you might have noticed how easy it was to progress in the language during a relatively short period of time. This is likely because you were surrounded by the language all the time, ie. in your host family and school and in your spare time which you spent with other language students.

Our children go through a period during which they are particularly receptive to language acquisition. This period is from birth to about three years of age. During this time, they are hard-wired to pick up as much language as possible. This can be one, two or more languages. There is no limit, at least not a cognitive one. The limit may be more on the time available. A child needs to be immersed in a language for at least 30% of their waking time to learn it effectively.

What I’m trying to say here is that, if you want your child to learn your language effectively, you need to surround him or her with it for as much time as possible. And you need to start as early as possible. And don’t worry if your child is older than three. Remember your language study trip? You were quite likely older than three when you went, and you still managed to pick up a language in a very natural way.

Also, you don’t need to wait until your child has mastered the English language before introducing another one. It is best to keep both languages on the same level as much as possible, because if one language becomes an effort, the child might actually give up. So what do you do if your child speaks English pretty well and is used to speaking English with you? Is it too much of an effortfor either of you to switch to the other language? Your child is clever. He or she has probably figured out that most people speak English, including you, so there really is no point in speaking anything else. Except for the reasons you know.

The advice I would like to give you is: Do speak your language with your child ALL THE TIME. Make him or her answer you in your language, too, if you can. I promise you that you will see the benefits. How long that will take depends on the age of the child, the younger they are, the sooner you will see, or hear, the effects.

I realise that you might have a lot of reservations or actually feel quite self-conscious about speaking another language with your child than the one you are used to speaking with him/her. So please come back here for some encouragement in the next post. In the meantime, please see below some more theoretical background on learning languages.

  • A child needs to be exposed to a language for at least 30% of their waking time to learn it effectively.
  • Research also suggests that there is no limit on the number of languages a child can acquire simultaneously. The limit may be on time, rather than on the cognitive ability.
  • The time before a child’s third birthday is the best time to introduce him/her to new languages as the child’s brain during this time is hard-wired to acquire as much language as possible. So the earlier you start, the better. However, there is no proof that a child can’t learn a new language after that time. Any time is good, so don’t delay.
  • The most important thing is consistency. The best and probably the only way to make sure the child learns his/her languages effectively and doesn’t confuse them is to agree on who speaks what language and stick to it ALWAYS. For example dad speaks English and mom speaks French. Or, better still, the minority language is spoken by everybody at home and the child learns English outside the home, i.e. in school, in day care, etc. Speaking a language is a bit like a habit. If you are used to speaking one language with one person, it becomes a natural process and won’t be questioned. However, if the same person speaks one language now and the next moment another, then the child can’t learn what language is spoken when. This is in fact the reason why many children understand but don’t speak the minority language. They don’t know when to speak it, and as mom or dad speaks and understands English anyway, there is no need to bother with the minority language.
  • Don’t worry about not teaching your child English. If they go to school, they are exposed to English well over 30% of their waking time. Listen to their accent. Does it sound more like your foreign accent [no offence] or more like the local accent? That tells you where they learned their English. You not speaking English to them, even you and your partner not speaking English to them won’t make any difference to them picking up English. I promise.