Teaching a second language

A lot of family and friends have asked me “how was I able to push my kid to speaking the mother language?” – in this case Arabic.  Most of them complain of talking to their kids in one language and they would answer back in English.  This could be any language, even if it’s not a mother language but simply to have them speak a second language.

Lots of stats and number showing kids who speak more than one language – although might take longer to speak when they are toddlers – once they do are better achievers in academics and apparently can process concepts and ideas outside the box more effectively (one of many articles on this here).

In my case it was so that when we hang out with his grandparents, he wouldn’t be lost in the crowd, he would get the jokes, the nuances, and can at least hold a conversation with them.  It wasn’t even about keeping a language alive, I talk to my wife in English most of the time anyway even though it was neither of our primary language growing up.  We can’t deny it is easier to learn and most of the pop references and humour, which we get from movies and media, are English based.

I’m not naïve either, I will listen to English songs, watch English TV, go to English cinema (we have no choice really) – most of the good stuff is English when it comes to pop culture.  But I was determined to at least have him try to learn it.

As a problem it never ends.  Even now as he gets older I have to keep at it.  The only way I got him to speak it is simple.  I would not answer him unless he spoke in the right language.  Even if he says he forgot the word, I would ask him to explain what he wants in Arabic.  Surely, now it’s weird for him to talk to me in any other language.  Even English.  Sometimes when we are with my step dad (who is Italian) I would talk to him in English just to humour my step dad so he’s not out of the loop.  But my son would answer me in Arabic.  So now even though I talk to my wife in English, my son will only respond to me in Arabic…. I would call that success, but it’s an ongoing effort, and luckily I was endowed with a big stubborn trait that helped me stick to it.

So, in short:

  • Don’t respond to them until they speak the language you want them to (the younger they are to start this the better)
  • If they don’t know the word, ask them to explain it in the language you want them to
  • If they ask the meaning of a word, explain it in the same language, don’t revert to English as the easy way out (and it is much easier)
  • Don’t go language Nazi on them, enjoy movies, music, TV shows, cartoons in English, but if you’re going to talk about what you saw or what song you like or what movie to see do it in the language you’re trying to teach them.
  • Plus, Youtube and phone apps that teach certain ages are always a great help – but don’t rely on them as the only source.
  • Even when your fighting, do it in that language, it helps them get all the different expressions (go easy on the swear words, they’ll learn those surprisingly fast in all languages).
  • Expose them to other languages, i.e. my son likes music so we listen to Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Indian, Italian, French etc. songs. Makes him realise that the world is big and knowing different languages is a cool thing.  It also makes him realise that not the entire planet speaks English, so he shouldn’t assume he can rely on one language only.

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