How to help your child learn a foreign language

Child holding globe
Learning a language opens up a whole new world for children. But where should you start? Dawn Francis-Pester reports.

Recent research from the Department for Education indicates that early language learning positively affects a child’s personal and social development, including their cultural understanding. It also helps to improve literacy skills and acts as a building block for future language learning.

While language provision has increased dramatically in primary schools over the last few years, the standard of teaching can vary widely and a few schools still don't offer languages at KS2. Parents often want a more active role in their child’s language learning, but are unsure what to teach, particularly if their own language skills are limited.

Choosing the right language

The main language offered at primary school is French, followed by Spanish and German, and secondary schools follow a similar pattern. Schools in Wales regularly teach Welsh while some schools in Ireland might also teach Gaelic.

Start off with a language you know or like the sound of. Mother of Callum, eight, and Aidan, six, Pat, chose to teach her children Spanish as she knew the basics and loved the country.  "We liked the idea of travelling in Spanish speaking countries and thought this would broaden their cultural horizons,” she says.

Understanding language skills

At school pupils usually learn languages by listening first, then repeating sounds or words and later reading and writing.

Listening and speaking

Both older and younger children will love listening to nursery rhymes and songs.  Even if they don’t understand what they hear, they will be unconsciously absorbing the pattern of language sounds.  As their interest grows, you can teach them a few greetings, tell them days and dates and practise saying some basic questions and answers.

It’s not a problem if you have no prior knowledge of the language. There are numerous cassettes and books for adults and children that offer translations and pronunciation so you can learn together.

Reading and writing

If your children are fairly confident readers and their writing is tidy and fast, there’s nothing to stop you encouraging them to read and write in the foreign language. Pat bought a Spanish 'lift the flap' book for her sons.

And reading doesn’t have to involve books. You can put posters up with clear words and pictures, write labels to stick on furniture, or make or download a few simple word searches.

Cultural learning

You can broaden the whole language experience by exploring life in the countries in which the language is spoken.  And don’t limit yourself to just one country. While French is spoken in France, look at African French speaking areas too, such as Guadeloupe and Martinique.

Pat took her children on holiday to Mexico, where they spoke a few words of Spanish, but if you don’t have the opportunity to travel, make use of the internet, library and DVDs. If you have cable television, or digital radio, you might be able to access foreign language channels.

What do I do next?

  • Find an after school or weekend language club, where your children can meet other learners and perhaps community language speakers
     
  • Look for a tutor who could teach your child one-to-one or in a group
     
  • Find your child a pen friend in a different country and exchange postcards and cultural details as well as letters or emails