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How to Start Older Kids on a Foreign Language
When introducing older kids to a language, with the goal of making them fluent multilinguals, the first consideration is really effort vs. motivation. After starting to speak one language (often around 2 years), learning another language requires some degree of effort from the child — unlike assimilating two or more languages simultaneously from birth. So, you will have to make sure the motivation is there.

It will be much easier to add a second language if your child’s playmates speak it or if you live in a new country. If not, you will have to be a bit creative in motivating your child and providing her with enough interaction in the second language. The more interaction, the faster she’ll learn, and the less she’ll resist it. The good news is that children retain their uninhibited chattiness, innocence about blatant errors, and joyful desire to communicate for a long time.


Here is the account from one mother less than two months after starting French with her two children, ages 1 and 3.5: "I have spoken nothing but French to my one year old for close to 7 weeks now and all of his new words are French. From what I can tell he understands me completely. My 3 and a half year old is a bit trickier, but I speak only French to her as often as possible (she replies in English as you warned me) and I’d guess that she understands about 60 to 70% of everything I say. Perhaps more, even. It’s not ideal, but I remind myself that if I hadn’t started this she’d understand NOTHING in French. Instead of looking at the things I should have done (speak French since birth) I am looking at the great achievements we have made so far."


Tips on transitioning into multilingualism

First, explain what you want to do and why. Even relatively small children understand a great deal, even if they can’t articulate it themselves. Don’t make any drastic changes, however. That will only be frustrating for everyone. Let your little one get used to the idea.

  • Switch to speaking only the minority language yourself, but with frequent translations when you notice she doesn’t understand. Accept replies in the majority language for now.
  • If your child answers back in the majority language, say "Yes," and then repeat the sentence in the minority language.
  • When you know your child is able to say a particular word but is struggling to remember it, jog her memory by providing the first syllable.
  • Be careful not to dampen her enthusiasm. If she wants a glass of milk, you can require that she asks for it in the minority language. But if she’s excited about telling you what happened at the circus, let her tell you in the majority language, and then repeat it back in the minority language. That way, you provide her the missing vocabulary in a positive way.
  • And as always: praise, praise, praise! Even if you had to provide the translation. And, don’t correct the errors outright until after the age of three, that is the earliest she’ll be able to understand the correction or explanation anyhow. Instead, just repeat the words correctly, also known as modeling. Alternatively, you can make a joke and say, “Oops, that came out wrong!” Laugh and provide the right way of saying it.


Other ideas to jump start older kids

Variety Try to plan many activities with varied interactions, including yourself, other adults, kids of different ages, relatives, playgroups, and anything else you can think of that will expose your child to the minority language. Here is one example from a mom living in Washington DC:" I just wanted my son to hear Italian from someone else than me, and the playgroups I found were all during the weekdays when I worked. Finally I just decided try out the Italian Church on Sundays. At two years old he’s too young to sit through the mass, but we joined the coffee afterwards. There are mostly older people there, but they seem to thoroughly enjoy the children, and all of them are so pleased that we are raising him with Italian that they praise him endlessly. Needless to say, with that much attention (and Italian cookies) he’s thrilled to go, and at even just an hour per week I see a marked difference. Actually, he just ‘adopted’ one of the ladies to become his Italian grandmother! "

Reason Talk with the child about the advantages of learning more than one language. They can understand the concept of multiple languages as early as 18 months old. The child may comment on it herself at that time, as one Dad tells us. "The first time he just looked at me, frowned slightly and all of a sudden said just one word ‘Norska!’ [Norwegian] I was stunned, I’d been speaking Spanish with my partner at dinner as usual and turned to continue speaking to Erik, three years, in Norwegian. Not only did he know, he even commented on it! Finally, after seven months of struggle, I knew my efforts were paying off." Depending upon the age of the child, try to explain the advantages. For younger children, encourage them to speak in the language e.g. with Grandma or a certain friend. For older children, you can point out the advantages in school, the fun of having a secret language, or how great it is to have a special and unique ability.

Stick & Carrot Although we all hate descending to a threat strategy in order to get junior to comply, everyone does it at times because we know it’s effective in the short term. If you use this approach, see if you can give it a positive twist. Here are some examples:

  • Watch a favorite program or movie (carrot), but in the minority language only (stick).
  • As all parents quickly realize, the main reason for kids to start speaking is to order you around, so turn it to your advantage. Institute a “you can get it if you say it in my language” policy — but within reason. Don’t be too hard for items outside her regular vocabulary. This reward approach is extremely high on the motivation scale, although a strong willed toddler may protest loudly. Give it at least one month, and be consistent.
  • Collect points for each color, animal, or other thing she say correctly and reward with the same number of goodies, stickers, etc.
  • Involve an outsider that “only” (whether true or not) speaks the minority language. It can be a family member, a nanny or au-pair, in a playgroup setting, or an immersion program.
  • If you have family in the country where the minority language is spoken and it’s feasible for you, spend as much time there as possible. Your child will not only benefit from the language exposure, but she will get to know the family and the culture. Alternatively, see if your family can visit you. If you’re able to do both intermittently, that is ideal!
  • For 10 more tips on how to boost the second language click here.


How do you stay firm?

Once the child has the vocabulary to understand the minority language, sticking to the family language system is key! So, as countless parents have asked: "But how do you stay firm?" Think of the things you could never let your child do, even if she wants to, such as riding in a car without a seatbelt, skip brushing her teeth, or crossing the street by herself. Stay firm about using the language just as you stay firm about these things, and she will get the picture eventually, although you can expect some pretty loud protests in the beginning. Give it at least three to six month and you’ll see a huge difference. Michelle living in Montreal tells us: "I’ve now reconciled myself with the fact that I need to remind my kids about 100 times a day to speak Greek. They don’t protest at all, they just seem too preoccupied to really notice that they switched back to French. After I prompt them, they continue seamlessly in Greek" Another favorite is to involve her in enforcing the language system, by turning the tables. Encourage her to correct you if you speak the wrong language to her. Kids really get a kick out of that!


Even if you end up starting your child’s foreign language study late, you’ll find ways to get around the challenges. Do you have your own success stories or tips that worked well for you? Please share them!

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