What kids teach us about learning a 2nd language

As parents raising our kids with more than one language, we are often focused on the benefits that WE see for THEIR future: opening up future work opportunities, building a mental gymnastic that has cognitive advantages, etc. These tend to be reasons that have future payoffs. Like many things, it requires effort and discipline as parents to do what we believe will be best for our kids’ future.

Kids, however, are not focused on their future. What is important to them is NOW. They focus on what they are doing now, what game they can play now, what book they read now. They are not taking into account future payoffs, they just want to have a good time now.

So, here are a few things that our children taught us about raising them with more than one language.  They might not express it directly that way, but the message to us is nevertheless pretty clear:
- “I like to be the language teacher from time to time”
- “I care about Spiderman, whatever the language it is in”
- “Why should I learn Chinese and not you?”
- “Learning another language is great if it helps me play more”
- “I am proud of speaking Spanish if I can help my friends”

“I like to be a teacher from time to time”

Raising a bilingual child tends to be one-way: one of the parents is fluent in the language, and helps her son or daughter learn. We learn Chinese as a family, and none of us is fluent. Since Elena memorizes characters way faster than we do, she has a lot of fun in quizzing us. The roles are reversed: she is the teacher, and she loves it.

“Learning another language is great if it helps me play more”

Learning a language is easier if it is connected to something important in the real world. An adult will be motivated to learn a language because it is necessary for the job, or because a spouse is from another country, for example. Similarly, a child’s eagerness to learn comes from seeing how it allows you to play. Having cousins in another country and visiting them is obviously ideal to be able to play in another language. It can also be downloading games in the target language on the iPad, and restricting iPad time to these games.

“I care about Spiderman, not about language learning books”

There are great French language methods out there, great bilingual books, etc. However good these books and methods are, it sometimes requires convincing (or bribing…) our son to buy into it. If a French activity book has a Spiderman theme, if we come across Spiderman stories in French, Pablo is eager to do it all. Spiderman activity books in French might not be the best “language learning methodology”, but they sure get Pablo's attention.

“Why should I learn Chinese and not you?”

It is much easier to learn Chinese as a family. Everyone studies, everyone practices at the local Chinese restaurant. It is part of what we do as a family. No excuse not to get the homework done.

“I am proud of speaking Spanish if I can help my friends”

Elena is in 2nd grade. This is her first year taking a Spanish class at school. Since she is fluent in Spanish she is eager to help her classmates learn vocabulary and songs. When she talks about it after the school day, we realize it helps her build self-esteem. And it reinforces her willingness to communicate in Spanish.

What do your kids like about learning a 2nd language? What are their favorite activities, whatever the language?