Introducing a Child to a Foreign Language

by NDFAuthors

  • Nov 11, 2013

It is fascinating to see how quickly the children pick up the new sounds and language and how easily they adapt and accept different ways of communicating.

The school I teach in introduces French for its very youngest nursery members at the age of 2 ½. In groups varying from 10-16 children I do two half hour sessions a week combining a mixture of songs, stories and games. It is fascinating to see how quickly the children pick up the new sounds and language and how easily they adapt and accept different ways of communicating. Language and grammatical concepts are just assimilated and their mouths are so much more malleable to the variety of sounds. At a crucial time in their speech and language development, they are the perfect recipients for new language. As proficiency develops in their mother tongue, so too it develops in whichever foreign language they are exposed to. They are learning, quite simply, how to communicate and they are so eager to understand and make themselves understood. Whenever I see the children around the school they greet me in French confidently as if it was the only way to greet me. Simply, the medium of communication with me is French and this is not confined to timetabled class hours.

Sadly, this lack of self-consciousness diminishes with age. Children become more wary of making mistakes, sounding “silly” and start overthinking the grammatical aspects of language learning. They may also feel frustrated that their level of communication is so vastly different from their ability in their native tongue. They often are desperate to communicate at a level they just do not yet have the skills for. Without a doubt, the earlier a child is exposed to a foreign language the better.

Research compared children learning a second language at birth, at age 2-3 years, at age 4-6 years or at age 7-9 years. The children in the study were tested on several aspects of language including the types of words and grammar they learned as well as the sounds they made indicating how closely they sounded like a native speaker. The results do not surprise me. Those who learned one language and then another (so learning a foreign language later); whilst they were able to become quite fluent in the second language they did not exhibit the same degree of mastery or fluency:

“We tested children on the whole landscape of human language – and the earlier they were exposed to a second language, the more masterful they were in each of these areas,” Petitto says. “So later-exposed children can say lots of words in French and Russian, but their second language had a heavy accent and they didn’t have as good grammar. They would immediately be identified as a foreign speaker.”1


I would say that this research concurs with my own experiential evidence as well as anecdotal evidence from my years of teaching. I began French at the age of two or three and whilst this did not guarantee me fluency, with a lot of hard work and motivation to improve, I have acquired fluency (although not native level). I also took up German at the age of 11 and whilst I reached a decent level in that, I never exhibited the natural fluency that I did with French which ‘came to me’ with much greater ease. Having tried to learn both Spanish and Dutch as an adult, I am acutely aware that my approach to learning is very different from that of a young child who is able to assimilate the language. At the same time I would say that age is no barrier to learning a foreign language. It is possible but more thought has to go into it!


However there was another interesting aspect to the study which indicated that children learnt the second language better if they picked it up in their families or communities than in a classroom setting.2 I would suggest that this would be because children are using the language in a real context and not a removed academic environment. It is also more likely to be using a ‘little and often’ approach which is easier for children to absorb. However, what I would also say is that in using French with my students around the school, I am exhibiting that it can be used outside a set lesson time and used within the school community. It is one step towards breaching the barrier between classroom and community.

So how can parents introduce foreign languages to children if they do not have another language themselves?

  • Duel language stories (with audio CD’s). Listen and follow the story together. Sound out the new words together. Use the pictures to help decipher meaning.
  • Learn alongside your children. Some language centres offer family classes. Children love teaching their parents and seeing their parents learning too.
  • Lots of libraries offer story time in other languages. Go along.
  • Listen to French children’s songs together and sing them. It’s amazing how the vocabulary sticks in your mind.
  • MOVE! Children learn by doing so try games such as Jacques a dit (Simon Says) to use target vocabulary. Hide pictures around the room and ask children to ‘cherchez’. Add actions to stories and songs to help them understand meaning.
  • VD’s. Immerse children with cartoons in the foreign language. It normalises their experience of the language even if a lot of the language is over their heads. My students love T’choupi and Babar (all available on Youtube).
  • Include intercultural information too. Children love to learn how other children live around the world, whether it is what they eat for breakfast or what their school is like.

languages-gamesIf you want to look for language resources, there are lots out there. Amazon is a great place to start but also has lots of language resources from books and DVDs to course materials and song books. has a great supply of songs and poems from around the globe.

How do you get your children interested in foreign languages and which approaches work for them? How young did your children start a foreign language and have they been able to sustain it? We would love to hear your thoughts.