My daughter, Vanessa, is always curious about what languages other people speak. I didn’t teach her that. Neither do I go around introducing people to her by announcing they speak English, Spanish or both. Yet, it’s pretty usual for her to want to know.
Once she finds out, she likes to make all aware that she speaks tres: español, inglés y francés—which she doesn’t, but I love that she thinks that way. The little French I’ve exposed her to, has totally stuck. She sings “Frère Jacques,” knows when to say “bonjour” and “merci,” and understands when I say most colors and some animals. Truth is, though, that she probably would be trilingual if I had gone at it a lot more intently.
While I think Vanessa has an affinity to languages, I also know that learning a third one will only occur if her exposure to it is constant and via meaningful interactions—debunking the myth about how children’s brains are like sponges and how they can learn languages effortlessly.
It is easier for children to learn a new language the earlier they are exposed to it, but it doesn’t just happen by osmosis. It takes work from both him and you. The good thing, in our case, is that it’s still doable, but I have to take some steps to make it a reality.
The first thing I have to do is work on building our home library. We’re huge supporters of the power of books when it comes to building vocabulary, so this is a given. It’s a good thing my daughter already loves reading.
The second thing we’re doing is adding a bunch of French music to our repertoire. In the past, I’ve looked up videos of popular French children’s songs in YouTube—such as one of my daugther’s favorites, “Tape, tape, petites mains,”—and she’s asked me to play them over and over again. (Did I mention she also absolutely loves music and dancing?)
Exposure to Language
One of the reasons why Vanessa likes the song I mentioned above is that she immediately recognized it when I first played it on YouTube a few months ago. She recognized it because she heard it at least once a week for few months when she was about 2 years old and I took her to French language lessons designed for children at our local Alliance Française. I must admit I wasn’t really convinced they were worth the cost, until I realized Vanessa actually remembered a few of the songs she learned there almost two years after she was originally exposed to them.
Don’t Forget to Play
Finally, try to remember that children learn best if it feels like they’re playing. We’ve written about playgroups in the past and we’ll continue to push them because we truly believe in both their importance and their value. Playgroups are a great way for your children to be exposed to others his age that also speak the “other” language. Not to mention how great they can be for you in terms of support and advice.
We already belong to an absolutely awesome Spanish playgroup and I have experienced first-hand the amazing benefits of belonging to one. The good thing is that I already know of at least one of this playgroups in French, so it’s now just a matter of making the time to start participating.
While children’s brains are amazing and the rate with which mine learn new things everyday is almost scary, the truth is they do need to have constant and meaningful exposure to the new language you’re hoping they will learn.
What are some ways that you expose your children to language?