How To Teach Your Child a Second Language You Don't Know

By Bunmi on October 27th 2011


When I first moved to Montréal two years ago I had experience with French; I studied it in college, my dad speaks it as do many of my friends. But being thrown into a society where the first language is not your own is a whole different story. Something as simple as getting a driver's license becomes an obstacle course of verb conjugations and awkward silences.

If I really didn't want to have to learn French I could have huddled up with English speaking friends and isolated myself, but part of the fun of living in this province is the culture so that wasn't an option. I'd always wanted to raise bilingual children. My parents shielded me from Yoruba (the Nigerian tribe we're from) when they moved to the US in an effort to fully assimilate. Although I can mostly understand, it would have been so easy to be fluent. These days, people are more accepting of the idea of raising "global citizens" and the pressure to look and talk like everyone else has somewhat dissipated.

The benefits to being raised bilingual are indisputable. From the cognitive advantages to career options, even just the ability to fully immerse yourself in a culture other than your own, the pros speak for themselves.

Even though my eldest spoke French here and there with her dad who is fluent (he has a French Canadian mom), she was far more comfortable in English when we stepped off of the plane and entered Québec for the first time. For anyone who is interested in helping their child learn a second language that they themselves are tackling, the first thing that they have to realize is that it won't happen by accident. One does have to be deliberate.

1) Playgroups: These days, most cities have Meetups or playgroups of parents from different cultures who want their children to interact and keep their language of origin. Look for one in your area and show up with a desire to learn and a few snacks to share. I'm amazed by how young children who don't speak the same language have no problem at all playing together. I remember when my oldest daughter had her first playdate with another little boy here who spoke in Spanish. They were both three at the time and played as if they'd been buddies all of their lives. They each spoke their respective language to each other but the lack of word comprehension was a non-issue.

2) Books and CDs: Visit your local library and look for books and CDs in the language you're interested in. Check out a few books and read them at bedtime. Listen to the music CDs as you clean or play. It's as simple as that. Children absorb from their environments. If they're exposed to the sounds, cadence, and words from a language, while they may not become fluent overnight, they will develop an ear for it - and that is the most important aspect of language acquisition.

3) Start Teaching Yourself: As with anything you want your child to pick up, you as the parent are the #1 source of knowledge and information. After about a year in Montréal my language learning began to plateau. I could order take-out, buy groceries, greet and exchange pleasantries, direct a taxi driver, tell the baker how to cut my bread... all of the daily French-requiring functions. I wanted to go deeper and simply didn't have the time to enroll in in-person courses so I ordered Rosetta Stone and began studying in the evening. There are a plethora of programs for adults out there. As you learn a new word or phrase, incorporate it, even if it's surrounded by English words, in conversations with your child.

Everyone knows that children acquire language at a faster rate than adults. I'm convinced that much of this has to do with their lack of self-consciousness and urgency when it comes to learning. Make it fun. Be deliberate about making the language available to them but commit to being curious. It doesn't matter if you pronounce words incorrectly or confuse the masculine and feminine terms... learning is a process, an exciting one at that.