From the age of eleven, when I had my first French lesson, I have always loved learning languages. My first linguistic triumph was during a family holiday to France when I used all of the four phrases I knew in French to communicate with the toddler who lived in the farm next door to where we were staying. I knew extremely little French but it was so much fun trying to work out how I could use what I knew to make myself understood and to understand the person I was talking to.
I went on to be able to speak French, Spanish and Chinese, and the best way I have found to improve is to keep playing with language in order to learn how to best express oneself. Having courage to try and make oneself understood no matter if the grammar is wrong or if you have to resort to wild gesticulation. Communication doesn’t have to be grammatically correct and it doesn’t have to be verbal but it can be lots of fun, and wonderful memories can be made in moments of shared communication with a stranger or acquaintance.
When I teach French to the pre-schoolers and primary children I meet every day, as I travel around with my box of puppets and games, we play and have lots of fun. This is also how I practise French with my own children at home. There is a loose structure in the phrases we practise but I have discovered that jokes and a little silliness can be a really effective way of helping kids learn without them feeling like they are learning.
If like me, you are a non-native speaker of a language other than your mother tongue it is very unlikely you will be able to keep up with speaking to your kids in a foreign language daily. It is exhausting and if you also don’t have regular access to native speakers of the foreign language of your choosing then context can be a problem and you might find your children telling you to be quiet every time you start speaking (as happened to me!)
I have two young children and I have learnt that with the best will in the world I am not going to be able to make them bilingual, they will have to get to that level by themselves if they wish, but I can make them love learning and discovering language and give them a solid foundation from which they can confidently go out and explore.
A simple way to practise a small amount of a foreign language regularly is to use books. It is amazing how much language a child can retain just from five minutes practise a day. Quite often I use the bedtime story as an opportunity to sneak in a French book and it usually goes down well.
The most common type of language books for little people are the ‘My first words’ style dictionary books. These type of books mainly contain page after page of pictures of objects and they can seem quite limited, but once you have read through the book with your child and sounded out the words a few times you can start to introduce more language.
Set your child a challenge. Once you have gone through the book and discussed what the objects are called, call out the name of an object in the book and make it a race to see who can find it first. Trying to beat the adult always gets children excited and every time you search for an object use the phrase ‘where is the…?’ in the target language. It is a simple but very useful phrase and can be popped into conversation whenever you spend time together.
If there are a lot of repeated images in the book ask your child ‘how many…are there?’ This is an enjoyable way to practise counting as you search for the objects together and every time you repeat the question your child is passively learning an extremely useful phrase. As you continue your reading time together asking questions is also a great way of testing your child’s vocabulary and you can gauge just how many words they can remember. It is very exciting and motivating when you can ask a question and your child can respond without hesitation. You can even deliberately count to the wrong number and test if your child is concentrating. When they see you are wrong they will love to tell you so!
Another way to practise vocabulary is for both of you to point out your favourite things in each page and to say ‘it is mine’. I have a book which contains rows of different cakes for counting and me and my kids pick out our favourite cake and say ‘that’s mine!’: ‘c’est à moi!’ It is fun when we choose the same cake and we have a little battle about who it belongs to, all the while in the target language…’The car, it’s mine!’ ‘No it’s mine!’ ‘No it’s mine!’ ‘Ok it’s yours’. From these very basic phrases more and vocabulary is being memorised and when we do it over and over it really makes the kids laugh.
These type of dictionary books for young children are usually very brightly coloured, this makes them perfect for practising colours.
You can do this by choosing an item on one of the pages and asking ‘what colour is it?’ Your child will have to listen to the name of the item, find it and then think about how to say what colour it is. Or alternatively you can choose a colour and look through the book searching for items of that colour and asking what they are called in the target language. Again it is fun to deliberately get the colours wrong to test your child’s response!
What are they eating/doing/wearing…?
You can also practise basic sentences and which pronouns to use by discussing in simple terms what some of the characters in the book might be doing. If the teddy is eating an orange you can ask ‘what is the teddy eating?’ Practise the response ‘he is eating an orange’. Or if the doll is wearing a hat ask ‘what is she wearing?’
I like/I don’t like…
You can practise saying what your favourite objects are in the book asking each other ‘do you like the blue lorry?’ and responding with ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like’. If you like to be dramatic you can react with mock disgust when your child tells you what they like and encourage them to do it back to you; this usually gets them laughing!
All of these suggestions are ways in which you can take the basic vocabulary on offer in a simple dictionary style book for kids and introduce so many different questions and phrases with hardly any effort at all. The more often you use enjoy books together the quicker your child will pick up these basics and this will lead to so many more phrases that you can learn together with ease.