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Reading and Language

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Ways to Introduce Your Kids to Foreign Languages

By Grace Hwang Lynch


Girl with gato on blackboardWant to raise bilingual children? Or just expose your kids to other languages? As the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan, I wanted to share the Chinese language with my kids. So when my older son reached kindergarten, I signed him up for Chinese school. After a few years, the weekly two-hour classes—plus homework—took a toll on our family. And my son still couldn't speak Chinese!

When it comes to teaching kids a second language, there can be a confusing array of choices. Here's some information on the most popular methods to help you find the right way for your child to learn another language.

  • Bilingual immersion is a teaching method that is gaining popularity in the United States. In this type of program, learning a second language is integrated with the academic curriculum. Students as young as preschool are placed in a classroom setting where all the teaching, as well as the usual conversation, is done in the language the kids are learning. "This teaches them a second language the way they learn their first language," says Nancy Rhodes, Director of Foreign Language Education for the Center for Applied Linguistics. In some programs, called two-way bilingual immersion, some of the students are native English speakers while others are native speakers of the target language, so the kids can learn from one another. However, these programs may not be available in all school districts, and even then, they usually only offer the most popular languages.
  • Extracurricular programs can provide linguistic learning opportunities in areas where bilingual education programs aren't available. They usually take place on a weekend morning or a weekday afternoon, like the one my son attended. Extracurricular classes are a good way to learn languages that are less common and not taught in public schools. The pitfall is that the courses can take time away from other activities, such as sports or music, and sometimes kids can feel too mentally drained after a full week of school to spend yet another day in a classroom.
  • Books and videos use your children's reading and screen time to introduce them to the sounds and writing of other languages. Iria Nishimura, a native of Finland, sent her children to a Finnish language class when the family lived in the San Francisco Bay area. But their new hometown of Sacramento does not have such programs. Nishimura keeps up their exposure to the language by providing Finnish books and videos to her sons, who are now nine and six.
  • Speak to them if you are fluent in a foreign language. "Speaking another language at home was like eating or sleeping, part of our home life. Nothing to it. The kids have never commented to me if learning Finnish was hard or not," says Nishimura. "When they talk to their friends, sometimes I hear them bragging about knowing another language."
  • Travel to a foreign country so kids can experience other languages and cultures. Of course, this is not always possible, so what about visiting neighborhoods where other languages are spoken? "I encourage parents to make their children more aware of languages around them," says Rhodes. She believes it's important to start the conversation with kids about how interesting other languages are. "When you hear other languages, point out, 'Oh wow, they're saying hello, but they're saying it differently.'" Also, learning about culture can make learning the language easier and more interesting.
  • Make it fun! "When a child feels like they're being taught something, they can tune out and become disinterested very quickly," says Karen Wu Audi, cofounder of the aha! Chinese language program. "So instead, I've always tried to weave in learning naturally and make it fun at the same time."

Most of all, don't give up. I was discouraged at my son's reluctance to speak in Chinese, but Rhodes says that's actually a common phase. "There's a silent period in second language learning," says Rhodes. "But if children are given the opportunity to hear a language, comprehension is developing."


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Grace Hwang Lynch is a writer, consultant and mom in the San Francisco Bay area. She blogs about raising an Asian-mixed race family at HapaMama.com.

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