Pin It
Sunday, November 24th, 2013

How to Start a New Language with Your Child

How to Start a New Language with Your Child from a Multilingual Mom/ © shutterstock

Language is all about communication and if you or your child do not experience or believe in the benefits of deeply communicating with others, it is a lost cause before you even start. As Nelson Mandela said “When you talk to someone in your language you speak to their head but when you talk to them in their language you speak to their heart.”


Before even embarking on learning a different language with your child it is important to note:


(a) Why you want to do it
(b) What your child’s level of interest will be
(c) What your goal is in terms of their language learning
(d) Whether or not it is useful and/ or realistic


This is usually the toughest one to face. Many parents would love their children to speak their mother tongue but unless this is backed up by a real meaning for their child, the language will be at best passive and eventually drop out of the child’s use altogether.


I remember my beloved French teacher telling me that it is much better to enable your child to speak just one language completely fluently such that they are fully able to express themselves than to force upon them a series of languages which they will be unable to use to any proficient degree.


There is no shame in being able to speak only one language: especially if you speak it well. Here are my suggestions for fostering a new language with your child.


1. Determine which additional language will be most useful to your child


For example if I lived in the U.S. at the moment that would be Spanish. If you have a lot of relatives who speak a different language with whom you are close and your child interacts with regularly then it might be their language.


2. Start off with words that you use most naturally


These are frequently words from your childhood that you will not have to stop and think about and your child will then seamlessly pick up from you.


3. Foster and develop relationships that will have meaning for your child in that language


If you have relatives who predominantly use the language you wish your child to learn, it would make sense for your child to go and visit with them long enough for the language to make sense to them (this can be just a few weeks for young children).


If you do not have relatives then friends are important too. For example we went to visit close friends in Spain to encourage my daughter with her Spanish.


4. It is critical for the child to visit a country where the language is predominantly spoken


Following on from point 3, my daughter loves her Spanish classes and we speak to each other in basic Spanish whenever we can but it wasn’t until we visited Spain that it all began to make sense to her. This was a living, breathing language that people used every single day and allowed her to engage with people she met and liked. She also visited with my friend’s daughter at her school.


5. If you do not speak the language your child is learning: start taking lessons yourself!


I am now learning Spanish thanks to my daughter. I very quickly was unable to help her with her homework and needed to keep one step ahead to maintain her interest (Spanish was her choice).


6. Follow your children’s lead in languages they want to learn—it is easier to work with a natural interest


Manu Chao is one of my favourite musicians and my daughter grew up listening to his music. She wanted to learn Spanish so she could understand the words in his songs.


7. Find a group class


Despite her natural interest, my daughter loved her classes because she did them with two good friends.


8. Use songs, books and videos


Children need many different modalities to learn.


9. Give them (and you) a break


When my daughter was around four, she suddenly completely stopped using Kiswahili and would not even respond to me if I spoke to her in it. I was heartbroken and concerned. I forced the issue initially then finally just stopped using Kiswahili with her altogether. When I stopped insisting I was actually able to find out the reason behind her not using Kiswahili. My giving her room allowed her the space to express how she was feeling about it. Several months later she returned to her Kiswahili and despite my fears had not entirely lost her fluency. At age six, she now happily moves between the various languages she speaks.


10. Children learn by imitation


Do you speak more than one language? Do you move between languages? Do you demonstrate to your child just how important it is to be able to communicate with all sorts of different people? Do you exhibit great pleasure in learning new things? Do your children witness your passion for language? This is much more important than the one person/ one language rule (where parents are encouraged for only one parent to use a particular language at a time) which I have not found to be true in the Kenyan context.


As my daughter said to me the other day, “I can always tell who you are talking to on the phone because of how you speak.” Often I am not even switching languages—just my innate desire to connect with others means that there are many subtle changes in language in order to achieve that particular goal.

© 2013, JC Niala. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

The West's Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep

How the West sleeps is different from the rest

Overheard on the Beijing Subway When People Don't Think I Speak Mandarin

The awesome stuff I overhear like what these two Chinese women think of foreigners.

A Different World: No Longer Brown in White America

Is it racist to not want to raise your kids in white America?


JC Niala is a mother, writer and creative who enjoys exploring the differences that thankfully still exist between various cultures around the world. She was born in Kenya and grew up in Kenya, Cote d'Ivoire and the UK. She has worked and lived on three continents and has visited at least one new country every year since she was 12 years old. Her favorite travel companions are her mother and daughter whose stories and interest in others bring her to engage with the world in ways she would have never imagined. She is the author of Beyond Motherhood: A guide to being a great working mother while living your dream.

Leave us a comment!

Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

A Children's Book for Raising Global Citizens

Every life is a story. It’s easier to understand someone when you know their story.

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!
Unfortunately, the school and community are no longer there. The farm is being sold and there are tentative plans for a new iteration to be set up in Costa Ric...
From How I Moved to Thailand with my Family on Less than $1000
HI! I love your website! Just read your review of books that teach about culture and food! I can't wait to try some of the recipes you've share...
From Armenian Recipe: Apricot Tart
Please, refrain from using "western /western society" for anglosaxon countries. Western can be Mexico and Spain as well, anything on the west side of the world is western ...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep
We've tried to make use of, but It doesn't works by any mean...
From African Parenting: The Sane Way to Raise Children
I'm back. Sorry, I stopped caring for this magazine for a while and forgot to discuss the meat of the matter. This article, as well as the linked article from 2011, fails to discuss cultural norms ...
From What Confused Me Most about Brits
Fascinating. I have been to Germany and met this guy who was soo rude! This article explains everything!! Since all Germans are so terribly rude it should come as no surprise that I should have met ...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
@ Josep. How could you possibly comment on how Germans treat people if you have never even been there? A three-day stay in Berlin and a one day stop-over in Frankfurt was enough for me to see the ut...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
I am trying to find a Sikh triangular Nishan Sahib flag and haven't found one. Do you know where I can find on...
From Vaisakhi Craft: Make a Flag
I have tried to buy a Sikh triagular Nishan Sahib flag and had no luck. Do you know where I can find on...
From Vaisakhi Craft: Make a Flag

More Raising Bilingual Children