Because my children take Chinese, and my husband and I don’t speak Chinese, I’m often asked this question: “How do you teach your children a foreign language you don’t speak?”
I had the same question when we started out. My oldest child was five when he told me he wanted to learn Chinese, but I thought it was impossible. When he was six, we started homeschooling, and I allowed him to enroll in a Sunday class at a local church. I thought we’d last a semester.
We lasted a year, then another, and another, and another, and finally right now we’re in our fifth year of Chinese. The younger siblings have joined in, too.
This summer, we added French, another language that none of us speaks.
One reason I think we are still going with foreign language is because our family has learned to relax and enjoy language acquisition. Too much of foreign language learning is tedious, repetitive, and boring. Some of the repetitive tedium helps you learn a foreign language faster, but keeping that up for the time it takes to learn a foreign language is painful. Over the long run, if the process is enjoyable, you’ll end up studying longer.
Well…..some high-tech foreign language programs imply that gamification of foreign language learning makes it enjoyable. I guess that could be true, if the games didn’t quickly become tedious, repetitive, and boring. Unfortunately for me and my children, that’s usually what happens for us. There are some high-tech foreign language programs, apps, and curricula that we do enjoy, but we don’t enjoy any one of them long enough to learn a foreign language.
Games are not the magic solution to foreign language learning, but they are one part of it that makes the whole process a lot more enjoyable. We use some high-tech games (my 5 year old’s current favorite foreign language app is Pili Pop), but the old-style games are what the kids like best. They play them on their own, with each other, and with me as often as I’ll agree to participate.
We haven’t spent much money on buying special games designed to learn language, we just use our regular ol’ stuff. We just speak as much as we can in the foreign language. We make mistakes, but it’s no big deal. Small children make mistakes when speaking their native language to each other, and they eventually learn to speak correctly, so we don’t worry about making mistakes, either. It wouldn’t be very enjoyable if someone was always worrying about mistakes, either.
I’ve got three example videos for you, so that you can see us in the process of playing a simple game. We don’t even own this game – we play it at our library. It’s the Melissa & Doug Hide and Seek Farm Wooden Activity Board With Barnyard Animal Magnets. The toy is designed for up to age 5, but when it comes to foreign language, we’ve kept using toys like this all through elementary school. The basic subjects are just right for learning language.
I think the videos below show a good progression in the language abilities. These videos are not rehearsed. We were sitting in a public library, so there is typical library noise around us. This is just an example of something that we do daily, which is to take something “normal” and play around with it in a foreign language.
The first video shows my 7 year old and I playing together in French. Neither of us speaks much French. We make some mistakes, but we are enjoying and trying to speak. We’re copying some things that we heard when we watched a Whistlefritz show, which was FRENCH FOR KIDS: Dedans et Dehors (Inside and Out). We were able to talk for less than a minute in French, which is fine considering that we have barely started to learn it. We call this the “Where is it?” game.
In this next video, my 10 year old son tries to teach me some Chinese. I am not very good! I have not studied Chinese and I only know what my children have tried to teach me. We’re able to make a joke in Chinese at the end, and we kept going for over a minute. The children really like when they get to teach us Chinese.
Finally, in this last video, my ten year old teaches Chinese to my seven year old. Really, they are playing together in the language more than actually teaching, but my ten year old makes a few corrections. The ten year old is in his fifth year of studying Chinese, and the seven year old is in her third year of studying Chinese (but she started a year younger than the older child so they are three levels apart). I think it’s really interesting that they were able to play with each other for almost three minutes. That’s three times longer than my seven year old and I were able to play together in French!
I hope you can hear from the videos how much fun the children are having when they practice speaking a foreign language. It takes a lot of time and some work to learn a foreign language – I don’t think there are any easy shortcuts – but the process doesn’t have to be painful. We enjoy it!