5 Key Steps to Start Teaching Your Child a Second Language

5 Key Steps to Start Teaching Your Child a Second Language

Teaching your child a second language is truly a gift you can give him/her that will last a lifetime.  If you are considering using another language with your child, or if you’re just starting out with bilingual parenting, these five key steps are for you.  They are the essentials that I wish I had when my husband and I started our bilingual journey with our children.  I hope these ideas can get you off to a strong start!

A second language is also called a “target” or “minority” language.  I’ll call it a target language here because it is the term I used as a teacher, and I like how it sounds more intentional – we’re targeting or prioritizing that language.

1. Make a Plan

It’s important to set goals for your child’s language learning.  How much do you want him to be able to understand and speak?  Do you want him to learn to read and write in the second language?   Or are you just trying to expose him to some fun vocabulary like colors, shapes, and animals? 

Once you know what your goals are, you can make a plan for language use.  Who will speak the second language (and when or how often)?  Everything your child hears or sees in the target language is called “language input.”  And the more language input, the more language learning!

There are many multilingual parenting approaches – such as One-Parent One-Language in which one parent speaks the majority language and one parent speaks the target language.  Or, the Minority Language at Home approach, in which you only speak the target language at home.  Some families choose to have a daycare provider speak the target language with their children.  Perhaps you create your own schedule for when you speak each language.

For my family, we decided on using a specific plan for English days and Spanish days during the week.  This has been a good balance for us.  Just make sure your plan lines up with your goals.  A truly bilingual child will require a significant amount of input for both languages. Read more about how we use the Time & Place bilingual parenting strategy here.

5 key steps to start teaching your child a second language from Bilingual Balance.

2. Read books

Prioritize reading in the target language – reading aloud to your child is a great way for her to learn new vocabulary and hear the language.  All the benefits of reading with your child apply to the second language as well.  Not only are you connecting meaningfully, you’re modeling rhyming and expression, learning about new topics, and introducing new words!  Reading is one of the single most important things you can do each day with your child, so you’ll want to make it a part of your bilingual plan.

It is helpful to have a reading ritual each day, maybe before bed or right after school. Be sure to prioritize reading time in both languages.  This will be a FUN and easy way to connect with your child and learn together.  You can find Spanish books at your local library or at Scholastic, Amazon, or other book stores (I’ve even found used ones at consignment stores).  You could even listen to audio books together! 

Check out my post on reading to your child in Spanish even if you’re not a Spanish speaker.  You can do it!

3. Enrich with music and videos

Enjoy music in your target language and take advantage of an easy way to get more language input for your child.  Music is such a fun way to add the language to your home or car ride!  Music makes us happy, makes us want to get up and dance, and just like books, introduces us to rhyming and new words.  On our family’s Spanish days, I sing Spanish lullabies to my youngest for nap and bedtime, we sing simple little songs I know in Spanish, and we turn on a variety of Spanish kids’ music at home. Check out my post on our favorite kids’ music here!

It’s so fun to watch my kids listen and sing along in Spanish to traditional English songs they know (like “The Wheels on the Bus”/”Las ruedas del autobus”).  Or learn traditional Spanish songs that become part of their childhood (like “Un elefante se balanceaba” or “Los pollitos dicen”).  We listen to music while we cook, play, or whatever!

Consider finding TV shows, movies, or other videos in your target language as well!  On Spanish days at our house, the kids know they need to pick a show that they can watch in Spanish.  We have found some entertaining and educational Spanish YouTube channels (check out my post on the best ones). We check out movies at the library (on the back of the case it typically says which languages it comes in).  Netflix and Amazon Prime Video can be another great resource as many shows and movies can be switched into other languages.

4. Find support

I probably don’t have to tell you that raising kids is a long journey!  We all need encouragement, quality resources, and support to get us through rough phases – or even tough days.  This support should include resources for your bilingual parenting and your child’s language learning.  Support for your bilingual parenting might be books, parenting groups, or websites like this one where you find information and encouragement.  Take a look at my top 5 bilingual parenting book recommendations. It might also include family or friends who can support you in sticking with your language goals for your children.

It’s also important to find support for your child’s language learning.  Perhaps your parents speak the language and can commit to using it with your child, or you have a friend who meets you for play dates in the target language.  There are many more sources for language input for your children. These could include friends, family, babysitters, tutors, language classes, or story time at the library.  My family has a wonderful Spanish-speaking babysitter and I’ve taken the older two kids to a weekly Spanish class for toddlers/preschoolers when they were younger.  Enrolling our kids in a Spanish immersion school (like those in which I taught) was also our goal from the beginning.  If you have any near you, choosing a bilingual school for your child will be invaluable.

5. Make it fun!

Kids learn best when they’re engaged in meaningful, fun activities.  Whether you’re playing a board game, doing a puzzle, or cooking together, FUN is the key element!  Bond with your child and make using the target language a natural part of the fun.

You can find Spanish games and activities for a variety of ages online through sites like Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers.  You can buy games, puzzles, and other language resources for your family in your target language.  But you can also enjoy toys and games that you already have in the target language.  Build a block tower and count how high it is in the language, paint a picture and practice colors, have your child do a puzzle and talk about the picture names.  Be creative and have fun helping your child learn! Find screen-free learning activities and on-screen language learning here on Bilingual Balance.

Big brother getting some “help” with his Spanish syllable puzzle cards

Enjoy the journey

These five key steps will get you started as you consider or continue teaching your child a second language.  Remember, language learning is a long journey.  It takes time, effort, patience, and lots of practice!  First, set your goals for your child and make a plan for using the second language consistently.  Next, expose your child to lots of books, music, and videos to increase the quality and amount of language input he gets.  Seek out support for you and your family as you take on this language adventure, and always remember to make learning fun!  Good luck!

Ready for more ideas? Check out these posts:

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