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Introducing a Child to a Foreign Language

by , 11th Nov 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.



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  •' teabag says:

    I love this, and totally agree! I was made to learn and master two languages (English and Chinese) from birth, throughout the school system to I was 16 before one became more dominant. Growing up, it was painful but the retention and fluency I have today switching into either language has made it a total gift for what my parents and government did to ensure I’ll have bilingual native competencies as an adult, and I’m very grateful for that! I remember it was a lot of reading story books in two languages, playing language games and watching tv series in two languages or with subtitles. Though I think most importantly, it was a constant immersion in two languages and an appreciation for the cultural aspects of both. 🙂

  •' Steph says:

    Nice blog and I agree totally.

    In my country (Holland; so btw nice to read you tried your hand at Dutch, not many people do)TV shows are not dubbed, but we use sub titling. Of course that is harder for young kids when they can’t read yet, but the big pro is that kids get acquainted with all sorts of languages and their typical sounds. I loved (and still love) putting on the BBC (yay CBeeBees), just to let my kids hear English being spoken and did the same with German whenever I could. Movies that have dubbing were replaced by the real thing as soon as possible.
    As a result (or so I like to think), my two eldest children, aged 10 and 12, can already speak English, whithout ever being taught in school. They are not native speakers and their grammar is nowhere near perfect, but they know a lot of words and invent their own if they have to. And their pronounciation isn’t bad if I say so myself. They even make their own video’s speaking English.

    As far as having an accent I would like to add, that some people just seem to have a gift for speaking foreign languages and some don’t. To me a lot of that has to do with being able to hear nuances; differences in sounds and accents. What you can’t hear, you can’t copy. Some people are tone deaf and can’t carry a tune. Others are deaf in an other way, or at least imo.

    Anyway, I would love for foreign languages to be part of the schooling program at a very young age. In Holland English starts at age 10 or 11 sometimes, but mostly not sooner than in high school (13). But why not start right from the get go? In the end, with modern technology distances are getting smaller, so languages are getting more and more important.

    Keep up the good work at NDF. Love reading your blogs!

    Love from Holland

  • Lana says:

    Now that explains why Dutch people speak such great English! You do not dub the original language!

    @Sophie Morgan Williams
    I tried to google it, but the results didn’t help me much, so maybe you (or anyone else reading this) can.
    Where and how can I find a list of nurseries near me that do language courses too? (I am in the UK)

  •' SophieMorganWilliams says:

    Hi Lana. My experience is that nurseries operate very independently and the ones which offer languages tend to be private. Which area of he country are you looking in and which languages are you interested in and perhaps I can help?

  •' Brianda García says:

    I found this blog very interesting, especially ’cause I’m Mexican and in my country (at least in public schools) have been slow to take into account the importance of introducing foreign languages ​​in the classroom, definitely the best age to learn more easy is childhood, is essential teaching other languages early, so they can dominate them better later and with this, they can approach to other cultures through knowledge of their language, I hope they can make better use of the capacity to learn possessing and children in Mexico have more opportunities to speak several languages ​​as do children in other countries. Saludos 🙂

  •' JN says:

    Hello! Can you recommend a good “learning to speak Serbian” program (CD/ DVD) for children ages 2-7? I am Canadian born with immigrant parents. I can say that I speak English more fluently than Serbian, as I’ve been schooled in North America. I’d like my children to learn the conversational basics however. Can you help?

  •' igor terzic says:

    Certainly an early age children should be allowed to learning a foreign language are beginning to take an interest in other people and the country than the one they live in ways that enriches their fund of knowledge with those natural bases of basic principles that underpin a society .
    Children in their earliest years are starting to learn a foreign language in order to post more easily be able to apply it in everyday life no matter what the people do, it is important that children understand that razilicite different countries experiencing their culture and what their purpose of their existence in this world.
    Children should be provided with the chance to more easily and effectively implement what you learn in your childhood to later be able to agree with those who will in their lives znbaciti something more than just a friend you can talk in their own language without the fear that something will understand.
    Learning foreign languages ​​enable children to have a clear picture of what was going on outside their living area in the country where they were born, but they did further run faster and better absorb all that is needed in order to more easily and efficiently mastered a language that will them at a later age help to understand the way in which they operate other states and their peoples .

  •' Chris says:

    The American Academy of Neurology recently stated that speaking a second language may delay dementia – people who spoke two languages developed dementia four and a half years later than people who only spoke one language. See for the press release.

  • Great points and interesting post! My husband and I are both fluent in french, so we started to teach our daughter the language as soon as she was old enough to start speaking. We would just speak it around her quite often, and she started to pick it up. The sooner you teach them, the better! Especially accent wise.

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