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Five Ways to Encourage Second Language Development

Studies have shown that fostering a second language in your child has extremely positive cognitive and cultural advantages. However, as most of us live in a mono-linguistic society, it can be difficult to start and maintain language learning.  Less than 10% of all Americans can speak a second language fluently.  Also, the amount of exposure to a second (or third) language will vary drastically from place to place.  As a former resident of South Texas and Southern California, I probably had much more exposure to Spanish than, say, someone from Caribou, Maine.  Now that I’m a mom, and I live overseas in a non English-speaking environment, I’ve seen firsthand some of the trials and triumphs of learning another language – the things that work, and the things that don’t.  For the mom who doesn’t want to wait until high school to get her child started with a new language, I’d like to share a little bit of my experience in this area.

Educational Programming

I’m sure many of us wonder, how much are all these hours of watching “Dora the Explorer” really helping my child learn a second language? There are a variety of opinions on this subject, with shows like Dora the Explorer and Go Diego Go! continually gaining popularity.  Some linguists think that these shows should not offer the English alongside Spanish, and that by doing so, they are actually inhibiting a child’s language learning ability.  Their reasoning is children don’t think like adults when it comes to language learning.  Kids can hear the word vaca, for example, and automatically associate it with a cow without hearing it reinforced in English.  Others believe that these shows are a great introduction to foreign language, and give parents an opportunity to interact with their child in another language.  I tend to side with this opinion.  My son has learned some basic Spanish skills from these shows, which is helpful when he interacts with my husband’s side of the family.  While this is by no means a complete education, it gives the child a great chance to learn the different sounds that exist in another language and to construct a few basic sentences in that language.


When we first moved overseas, I was so frustrated at how resistant my son was to learning Arabic.  Then, his teacher at preschool had the brilliant idea of loaning us a CD with some children’s songs in Arabic.  My son LOVES them!  He can do all the dance moves that go along with the songs, and he has learned body parts, animals and verbs by listening to one CD.  He’s even starting to teach his sister some of the things he knows.


For the parent who wants to do more in-depth learning, tutors are available to help kids learn another language.  These programs usually take place after school for an hour or two a week, and they can involve intense, one-on-one language learning or group learning.  Ask the head of the language department at your local high school (or university) if there are any programs like that available in your area.  For us, tutoring has proven extremely valuable.  We are NOT native speakers here, and while we can help our son a bit, he doesn’t really like speaking with us in Arabic – and to be honest, he doesn’t learn very much!  Having a native speaker who talks to him only in Arabic has really improved his communication skills.

Language Education Programs

Did you know that there are foreign language immersion schools in the US?  Right now, there are over 200 of these special schools located throughout the United States.  Some teach completely in a foreign language, some have some classes in English and some in the foreign language, and some are “two-way” programs with a mixture of native and non-native English speakers learning from each other as well as their teachers.

Being Creative

Sometimes, we have to step out of our comfort zone to get this going and try to get those brain muscles working, too!  There are places that offer mom & child language learning programs to help those of us that want to take an active role in the language learning process.  For those of us that have a bilingual family, having each parent speak in their native tongue can cause language learning to be a little slow in the beginning, but has tremendous benefits long term.  If you feel comfortable doing this, ask abuela or abuelo to speak with your child only in Spanish.  I knew someone who made a deal with her neighbor – my friend spoke only English to her neighbor’s kids when they came over, and her neighbor spoke only Spanish to the kids when they were at her house.  Pretty neat, huh?  There are endless possibilities in this category if you want to get your child rolling with a second language!

Some more information:

Kids Source has a great FAQ page about the benefits of children learning a second language

Center for Applied Linguistics home page

4 Responses to Five Ways to Encourage Second Language Development

  • Gravatar
    Comment by Annett McDavid
    October 2, 2009 @ 6:59 am


    Thank you. Great article.
    I totally agree with the things you’ve said. Hopefully people take your experiences and utilize them for their own children.
    I am a mom too and moved here from Germany in 2001. When my son was born I of course wanted him to learn German. He is now 6 years old and speaks 3 languages fluently – English, German and French. He is also making great progress in Chinese, Arabic and Spanish.
    We did exactly what you said in your article.
    He loves to watch anything that relates to car and things that move so we bought DVDs with that content in Arabic, German and Chinese. He loves Will Smith and watches “Men in Black” in French. He has “Ice Age” in Chinese. His CDs compose out of children songs in Chinese, Arabic, German, Spanish and some French. We have tutors for Arabic and Chinese. But he also attends a French immersion school and a Chinese Sunday school.
    It is very important to put children into an environment where they feel it is okay to speak another language. I noticed with friends that when they send their children to a public school where it isn’t cool to speak any other language than English they stop talking their second or third language over because of peer pressure.

    Sharon, keep it going!

    Best regards,

  • Gravatar
    Comment by Noah Goodman
    October 2, 2009 @ 7:23 am

    Thanks for the great post about your experiences. It’s always important to share how different people are approaching raising their children bilingually. I especially like the tips that work for parents who speak only one language. We definitely get people asking us how they can help their child to learn a second language when they don’t speak that language (I’m going to link this post to our Facebook page).

    There was a great thread going on the Motherload Blog from NY Times about raising bilingual children: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/15/raising-a-bilingual-child/

    Noah Goodman
    Global Language Project

  • Comment by Sharon M
    October 2, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    Annett – Wow, six languages?! That’s incredible! Maybe he’ll be a famous diplomat some day :-) I think that, in general, Europeans have a much healthier view of language learning than us Americans. It’s starting to change in the US, but slowly. Good luck to you and your son!

    Noah, thanks for the link. Very informative, and it’s nice to remember that we’re not alone! I feel a bit isolated in the Arab world sometimes.

  • Comment by Amanda
    October 3, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    Thanks, Sharon! There is a Spanish immersion school not from my house that starts with 3 year olds. It is the same hours as my current MDO program, but about a $100 more a month. I think the extra may be worth it. Thanks for the encouragement. :)

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