3 Ways to Teach Kids a New Language

Teach Kids a New LanguageI still remember the big day in 6th grade that we got to choose the foreign language that we’d start learning: Spanish, French, or German. (I picked Spanish.) Many schools in the U.S. still don’t begin to teach kids a new language until middle school, while most European countries, for example, start instruction of a second language when kids are six to nine years old. Here are a few reasons why it’s beneficial to start language learning sooner rather than later:

  • “The ability to hear different phonetic pronunciations is sharpest before age 3, and we lose the capacity to hear and produce certain sounds if we aren’t exposed to them early on.” [Parents]
  • “After the teen years, the brain changes and makes it extremely challenging (if possible at all) for an adult to learn a foreign language.” [Parent.co]
  • “While new language learning is easiest by age 7, the ability markedly declines after puberty.” [NBC News]

Over at Corporette, we recently talked about ways to learn a foreign language as an adult, so we thought it was a good idea to talk about language-learning for kids, too. If you or your partner don’t speak a second language and neither do your parents/in-laws, here are a few ways to teach kids a new language:

Enroll in an Immersion School to Teach Kids a New Language

In an immersion school, instruction takes place partly or entirely in the students’ second language, often Spanish, French, or Mandarin Chinese — and this learning method takes place at private and public schools alike. In New York City, earlier this year the Schools Chancellor announced 38 new bilingual programs across the five boroughs, including 29 dual language and nine transitional bilingual educational programs. (These programs benefit native English speakers and English language learners.) The Center for Applied Linguistics maintains a database of foreign language immersion programs in U.S. schools.

Teach Your Kids a New Language by Hiring a Bilingual Nanny/Babysitter

Try these methods to find a bilingual nanny or babysitter, whom you can ask to speak to your child only in a certain language, or in that language in addition to English:

  • If you live near a college/university with international students, ask the education department or career center how to get the word out to students looking for babysitting jobs.
  • Search at Care.com or Sittercity for a caregiver who speaks more than one language.
  • Hire an au pair.

Here’s a NYT article about parents searching for bilingual caregivers.

How to Teach Kids a New Language: Home Language-Learning Products

Here are a few options for products that promise to teach kids new languages:

  • Little Pim was created by Julia Pimsleur, daughter of Pimsleur Method creator Dr. Paul Pimsleur, with the help of “[a] leading neuroscientist[,] educators and native language experts.” With its videos, books, flashcards, and CDs, your child (age 0-6) can learn Spanish, French, Chinese, Italian, German, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, or Portuguese.
  • Foreign Languages for Kids by Kids was created by Kit Strauss after she was “unable to find quality foreign language products and programs for her three sons.” The program teaches Spanish to kids aged three and older. Based in Maryland, the company offers videos, workbooks, puzzles, quizzes, and games to help kids learn, and you can test them out with a two-day free trial.
  • The BBC originally developed Muzzy years ago to teach English as a second language, and now the program is available (through an education company) as DVDs and an online subscription program that teach Spanish, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, and Italian to kids of all ages. It offers a “risk-free” trial.

Is your child learning a second language? Can you speak the language he or she is learning, i.e., will you be able to help? Is he/she learning at school, through an outside class, with a language-learning product, or with you or another family member? Do you have any bilingual/immersion schools in your area, and have you considered enrolling your child in one?

Pictured: Pixabay


  1. MomAnon4This says:

    My son is in a language immersion program at our local public school. His teachers have encouraged the Duolingo app, and I’ve recently tried it — it’s great! Not fluent, of course, but helpful.

  2. Navy Attorney says:

    Our neighborhood school is language immersion, to which I plan to send both my daughters. One day I will have no idea what my girls are saying to each other…

  3. Curious says:

    I speak two languages as does my family so I am trying to teach our little one both. So far it’s just very random: I speak to LO in the foreign language and husband does English but I can’t quite bear to speak in the foreign language when we’re all together, which all the books tell you is best. But I don’t want to spend our limited family time together speaking a language one of us (H) doesn’t understand. Baby is not verbal yet so not sure how this will all work out. I’d love to hear from those who have done this successfully on how you did it. The only fluent bilingual speakers I know come from families where both parents spoke the “foreign” language at home and the kid learned English in preschool.

    • I have the same issue! DH only barely understands my native foreign language (he spent a couple of years in that country but could manage with English). I feel it’s rude to speak in my language if DH or inlaws are around, and they are most always around so its difficult.

    • Meg Murry says:

      I have a friend who grew up in this kind of situation, and basically from what I can tell, the father was really open to learning her language, so whenever understanding wasn’t 100% critical for her husband she would speak to the child in her native language so the child and husband could learn, and over time he learned enough to try to speak back. So basically, he agreed to also be subject to a language immersion experience when they were at home and it wasn’t 100% critical that he got the message right the first time. By the time my friend was a kindergartner, the father still wasn’t great at understanding the language, but he generally understood it pretty well – which was important because the mother’s relatives spoke very little English, and he would have been miserable when they visited the family and he didn’t understand anything they said.

      For Sam, would your husband be willing to try a compromise like “at breakfast we speak [ Sam’s native language], at dinner we speak English”? You’d be surprised how quickly kids pick up on something like this and are ok with it (and/or mix and match the languages together until they get to be about 4-5). Would your husband be ok if you said something to the in-laws like “I read a study about how much easier it is for a child to learn a second language if they are exposed to it before age 3 (or 5 or whatever if your child is older than 3), so I’m not trying to be rude but we’re trying out me primarily speaking to Kiddo in [my native language]. Please feel free to ask if you want to know what I am saying or if I accidentally forget and talk to you in [native language] instead of English.” You could also try using both your native language and then repeating in English, at least when you are at the in-laws house or are specifically trying to include them in the interaction.

    • 1anon says:

      I did this with my first, where I spoke in my language pretty much exclusively to my daughter even though my husband had very limited understanding of my language. It was easy enough to do when she was young and spent most of her at home with me. My mom and MIL helped with childcare while I worked – my mom spoke to her in my language exclusively and my MIL spoke english to her. She said some words in my language, but always spoke mostly English. It got harder as she got older – when she went to preschool, we hired a nanny (who spoke English), etc. With my second, it was a lot harder because by that point my older one was in preschool and we had the nanny. So he didn’t get much exposure at all. Now as a young teens/preteens – my older one understands A LOT of my language, but really doesn’t speak at all, while my second doesn’t understand more than a few words. Just understanding is so helpful – my parents have an easier time communicating with her (they understand english just fine, but its easier for them to speak in my original language). I really wish I had stuck with it more with my second. Its much harder to keep up at this point now. We are so busy and time is so limited at this age. I really can’t imagine having the conversations we have in my language – its so much easier for me to communicate in English. But, its still nice that my oldest has some understanding – it helps with the connection to the culture and the rest of my family.

      I will say that even though my husband’s understanding of my language was very limited, he was always very supportive of me teaching the kids and would try and learn as well. So, although difficult, it was a fun family activity. Also, my language is kind of an obscure language, with very limited tv show options etc. Books are hard too because the alphabet is different and although I can read, it was harder to keep up.

    • Anonymous says:

      We are in the same boat. We use the English when we’re all together. Sure the language progression may be a little slower, but for us, it just works out more harmoniously. They still get plenty of 2nd-language time.

  4. Bilingual Preschooler says:

    Sorry for the novel but there are a few people asking about helping your child learn your language when your spouse doesn’t speak your language or you live in a unilingual environment so I thought I’d share what worked for us:

    My husband has a different first language (German) but we live in an area that is almost exclusively English speaking. From the beginning he has spoken to her in German exclusively – even in front of others when they don’t understand. We sat my parents down early on (shortly after birth) and explained that this is what we would be doing because it was important to us that she learn the language. My MIL and husband’s family have spoken to her exclusively in German since birth. We had CDs in the car in German and books in German since birth and we skype regularly with the in-laws. Lunchtime on the weekends works great for skype. Just set up tablet in front of highchair while kids are eating lunch. We got the in-laws used to doing short sessions more often – like sometimes skypeing/facetiming might only be 10-20 mins but it was important that she had other sources of German language input beyond just my husband.

    She started talking in English a bit later than other unilingual kids- we found the Hanen “It takes two to talk” book/dvd very helpful to encourage speech in general. By age 4 she understood everything in German but still wasn’t speaking in German so we increased the amount of second language. We did this by switching to my husband speaking to me exclusively in German and him saying that he didn’t understand her in English. We taught her the German language for “how do I say — in German?” and DH would tell her and she’d repeat it. She used that a lot early on. But honestly – she had a bit of a language explosion – it seemed that she had a lot of latent German language and we just needed to force her (gently) to use it. My German isn’t great but even when you can’t speak or read a lot, learning to understand comes pretty quick. For this to work, I don’t actually need to speak much German – I just have to understand enough to get by.

    She switches languages based on which parent she is speaking to. So if she’s speaking English and my husband answers she’ll say “I wasn’t talking to you”. We allow a little sass in this area because it encourages her to be assertive about how she uses language. I speak English to DH + daughter, DH speaks German to Me + daughter, and Daughter speaks English to me and German to DH.

    When we switched to husband speaking German to me and daughter speaking German to him, I literally sat down with my parents and explained the change, I told them it was important to me that they supported this. Our rule is also that the second language is NEVER used to say anything in front of them that we wouldn’t say to them directly. They trust that we’ll provide quick translations as necessary – “I was just saying that she has to eat four bites of broccoli before ice cream.”/”They’re talking about blowing bubbles” etc. DH translates sometimes or I will on occasion too.

    We also upped the screen time in German – she watches Daniel Tiger exclusively in German – she gets very limited English screen time each week but we’re indulgent with the German language screen time.

    What I do:
    1. Accept that extended family meals are a bit more awkward and I have to pay attention to translating sometimes (“they’re just talking about her day at school” etc)
    2. Accept that I won’t understand 100% of what my husband says to me and will need to ask him to clarify/translate on occasion (we also do home reno talk or car repair talk in English after she goes to bed – I don’t have the vocab for those)
    3. Read to her in the second language (This was easy at first – I still remember when she moved up to books with more than one word per page – terrifying but I learned.)
    4. enforce rules around television limits in English and allowing access only in second language as agreed (side note – if anyone can find Peppa Pig in German let me know!)

    We’re also adding French immersion at Kindergarten this year. We debated about that but decided that the three languages are close enough that it would help reinforce a bit. (e.g. – French has masculine and feminine and German has masculine, feminine, neutral) Plus the French immersion in our city still has a ton of English.

    If anyone’s looking for suggestions for videos etc in French or German let me know.


  5. Closet Redux says:

    Our two and a half year old is comfortably bilingual. We speak our target language at home and she goes to daycare in English. Like BilingualPreschooler above, we read lots of books in the target language and she only gets screen time in the target language. She easily switches between the two languages, though her preference seems to be emerging as English, probably because she spends most days speaking English, her little daycare friends all speak English, and our community is exclusively English-speaking.

    For us, the greatest struggle has been sticking with the target language when neither my husband nor I is a native speaker. Though we are both highly conversant / approaching fluency it is a definite struggle. We have to look up words we don’t know and sometimes correct our own or each other’s grammar, though amazingly our kiddo doesn’t appear to repeat our mistakes. As soon as she goes to sleep we collapse into English and have higher-level conversations we’ve been saving up all day. It’s hard. But now that she’s fully conversant in both languages it feels so worth the struggle. We are definitely trying to find other language models for her now that she’s a bit older and would love to do a bilingual preschool if that were an option. I have read that having peers who speak the target language is critical for a child’s interest in keeping the language. We definitely don’t want it to be a “private language” or “home” language or otherwise less useful to her, and normalizing it among her peers seems like a great way to do that.

  6. Bilingual Baby says:

    I am pregnant with my first child and plan on trying to teach him or her Romanian. I am 90% fluent, having grown up with grandparents who spoke the language, but my reading/writing is rusty. My husband does not speak the language, but I like the idea of having him try to learn as the baby does. I may also have to try the CDs in the car and Skype with grandparents approach. Lots of good ideas here for what seems like a daunting task. Any other advice or words of encouragement would be much appreciated.

    • bilingual preschooler says:

      Try languagelizard.com for Romanian – English bilingual children’s books. Start speaking to your baby while still pregnant in Romanian. Ask your grandparents to send you some CDs with Romanian children’s songs and folk songs – leave the cd in the player in your car- babies love music. It’s more meaningful when family is involved so ask your grandparents to record themselves in cd reading childrens books in Romanian and play those in the car too. Just hearing the different sounds of the language is super helpful for kids developing a positive association with the language

  7. Carrie says:

    Not a parent, but I taught English to 3-6 year olds and 7-9 year olds in a foreign country. You start with 45 min classes twice a week and up to 1 hr at age 7. Basically, at 3 they start out at a ‘why are the parents wasting their money on this’ level. We only cover the most basic nouns, colors, animals, etc. When they get to be 8 though, they’re amazing. They make a lot of spelling errors, but they have insane vocabularies, no accent, and really good grammar. So I guess my point is if you don’t see a lot of progress when you start, that’s ok. Just stay consistent and keep going.

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