Mum, what is sweet in Chinese? 5 Steps to ease your child into a foreign language

Chinese writingWell, I don’t know, sweety, but we can find out… I never thought that it would really get to that point where they actually “think by themselves” and start showing interest in other languages. Of course, it was going to happen, but when you hold your little bundle of joy for the first time, be it in hospital or at home, you just think about protecting it and what you can give it, you don’t think about what they may ask in the future! I don’t really push other languages and I don’t really intend to send them to formal language lessons, unless they want to go, of course. At the moment, making sure we keep the balance with three languages is hard work enough. Also, personally, I don’t believe that acquiring two or three languages when you are a child gives you a wand that magically makes you learn another language effortlessly when you wave it around.


I believe that learning other languages makes you aware of other sounds, words and cultures. Children are more broad minded because they have learnt that there is more out there than their little village or city, that there are different ways of saying something. However, learning a language in a classroom environment is a different kettle of fish. I’m afraid that bilingual children may be as averse to learning grammar and doing “formal” learning as their monolingual peers.


It’s like this, gifted children are gifted, that is to say, it may be easier for them to learn and understand concepts, but they still have to do the work. They still have to read books, watch documentaries, listen to lectures, etc in order to get the information. So, a multilingual child may be a step ahead in terms of knowing more sounds, and knowing about the advantages of other languages, but if they want to learn, say Chinese, they would still have to do the donkey’s work.

1. First step is of course expose them to other languages and people from other countries. Children are curious and love learning, they are in fact learning constantly since the moment they open their eyes. Whet their appetite by taking them abroad, or to foreign markets and festivals. Ged bilingual books out from the library and point at words, and explain that they are said in a different way in other languages.

2. Second step is really getting them into learning some language. They are plenty of resources out there, using something like Ni How, Kai Lan, a series about a little Chinese-American girl that besides entertaining teaches Chinese words will surely open their ears and hearts to learning a new language. If you have any tablet, smartphone or digital device where you can use apps, look for free or cheap apps for preschoolers. For instance, in French you can find many apps for French preschoolers who are learning shapes, or basic reading, etc. These apps are often fun and children just like playing with them, they don’t really realise they may be learning something.

3. Getting more serious, looking for classes and conversation groups. Be careful with this, don’t get too carried away. A French singing class doesn’t mean your kids is going to learn any actual conversational French, besides a few classics, however, it will boost their confidence, they will learn a few useful words that they may be able to use on holidays or with foreign visitors. What this will do is to get them interested in language, getting more used to new sounds and hopefully also have fun.

4. If your child shows signs of being interested in learning a foreign language and seems serious about it, then maybe it’s the time to start looking for classes or tutors. These tend to be quite expensive, and generally children don’t learn as fast as adults in formal settings, as they need quite a lot of play and introduction to learn new concepts. Their memories are not totally develop yet, so they also forget at a greater rate. So, although their minds are great sponges for knowledge, on the other hand it seems that that knowledge needs to be “in context”. Immersion is really the best way for children. So, you may want to investigate finding a foreign au-pair or student who can come and play with your child for a few hours using their language. That may be a bit more productive that formal lessons.

5. Follow your kids’ interests and make a family activity out of it. Who knows, you may even enjoy it. If he says that he wants to learn Chinese, get a few easy books or apps to learn Chinese. Make a game out of it. Make flash cards at home, and play with them, watch together easy songs on YouTube. Maybe you will not learn a lot, but you will have fun, learn a few words, and find out if your kid is really interested in learning that language.


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