Tips For Parents Who Want To Improve Their Own Language Skills

By Charles Gregory, January 2015

I know there are lots of parents out there who would love to bring their children up bilingually but unfortunately are not themselves bilingual. If that describes you, this post is written for you.

It’s a tough spot to be in, bringing your children up to be bilingual is a wonderful gift, but to be able to really immerse your children in your target language you need to be able to speak it yourself.

The good news is that becoming fluent in a second language is actually not that hard, I know this because I have done it myself (and am well on the way to fluency in my third language).

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A Common Myth

It is often believed that adults are not as good at language learning as children. This is actually not true… While children are very good at picking up languages, adults have a huge advantage – they can already speak one language!

A dedicated adult can reach a pretty high level in a second language with a year of part-time study. Compare that to a child who will normally take 2 or 3 years before being able to form simple sentences.

So no excuses! If you really want to learn that language, here’s how:

The First Rule: You Need Words

Many language courses focus too much on grammar, but most people find grammar boring. Remember, the reason you want to learn is because you want to be able to speak. The single most important thing then is to learn lots of words.

When starting a new language I like to aim for around 2,000 words…

That may seem like a lot, but if you learn 10 new words per day you will get there in just over 6 months. That’s very doable, but even at 5 or 6 per day it will only take a year. When I started learning Spanish I aimed for 20 words per day on average.

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How To Do It

The first step is to come up with a list of words. Start with a spreadsheet, in one column you will have the English word and in the other the translation.

The list should be a mix of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs and should be based on which words you will use most often. If you Google “top 100 verbs in X language” that will be a good start.

I also recommend including a separate entry for different conjugations:

                  What is a conjugation?

                  In English we conjugate verbs like this:

                  Verb: to be (irregular)
Conjugations: I am, you are, he is…

                  Verb: to dance (regular)
Conjugations: I dance, you dance, he dances…

                  Here’s an example in Spanish:

                  To be (for traits): Ser
I am: Soy
You are: Eres
He is: Es
Etc…

Do this for all of the most common verbs and uses, and include past and future tenses too (eg, I danced, I was dancing, I have danced, I will dance etc…)

Some people try to just learn the patterns, but learning the actual conjugations will help you to be much more fluent when you start speaking, and you will learn the patterns intuitively, so that eventually you be able to conjugate new verbs based on what sounds right.

Memorising The Words

Ok, so you have a list of 2,000 words to memorise, what next? This may seem like a mammoth challenge, but you will be amazed by what you can achieve when you try.

I like to use a free computer program called Anki.

Anki is a “Spaced Repetition” program. In simple terms, it shows you new vocabulary over and over at timed intervals. So the first time you learn a new word it will show you that same word again a minute later, then 5 minutes later, then 10 minutes…

The more times you review a word the more ingrained it becomes in your memory and so the longer the interval becomes. Each time, you will see the English word and you try to remember the translation, if you remember correctly you mark it as correct and the interval gets a little bit longer. If you forgot it, the interval resets to one day so you can relearn it.

It should only take around 15-30 minutes per day if you do it every day. You will learn 10 new words each day and review any old ones that are due to ensure you don’t forget them.

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The Second Rule: You Need To Speak

Once again: don’t worry too much about grammar. As soon as you have a vocabulary of 500-800 words you have plenty with which to start talking. At first you will speak in a very broken way, but you will be able to make yourself understood.

The great thing is, because you already have the vocab in your brain, when you start using it it will move to your fast memory and things will slot into place incredibly quickly. It often only takes 5-10 hours of speaking practice to get to the point of being able to hold a simple conversation.

So what are the options?

Move Abroad:

If you can live in a country where they speak your target language then that’s ideal (you lucky thing) but if not, don’t worry…

Get A Language Tutor:

Face to face practice with a professional tutor is ideal, especially when starting because the tutor can answer any questions you have about why things are said a certain way and they will be able to plan lessons around your ability level.

You can find a UK based language tutor here, or of course on plenty of other sites online. I would suggest telling your tutor that you mainly want to practice conversation and avoid English as much as possible (even if doing so is tough at first).

Get An Online Tutor:

This is best in addition to a language tutor (and a good way to save money). There are plenty of sites online where you can find online language teachers for conversation practice. This site has plenty of native speakers all over the world.

An advantage to this is that you can select a teacher who doesn’t speak much English. This will force you to use your target language.

Language Exchanges:

If you want to save money, and don’t mind giving up some of your time, you could try a language exchange. The way it normally works is that you find a partner who speaks your target language and wants to practice their English. You then chat (via Skype) for 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in your target language.

                  Bonus Tip:
                  During your conversations you will come across new words, ask your tutor to write them                down and after your session, add them to your Anki deck, this is an excellent way to      supplement your Vocabulary.

The Third Rule: Put In The Time

The reality is that when you are learning the right way, it doesn’t take that much time to improve. If you can put aside 20 minutes per day to review your vocab on Anki and then 3 hours per week for conversation (either with a tutor or online), you will soon be able to converse at a basic level.

If you can get your other half to do the same, then pretty soon you will find that you can chat to one another in the target language, and that is when the true immersion will start!

Other Tips

Finally, don’t be afraid to try other things to help round out your learning. Here are a few suggestions:

  • When learning vocab, use Forvo to check how to pronounce them correctly
  • Get a Kindle and get some children’s books in your target language
  • Find some music in your target language, learn the words and sing along to it