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Ask an Expert: How can I teach my child a second language if I don't speak it?

Maybe you took two years of French in high school, but barely remember how to say "aujourd'hui." Or maybe you know Spanish conversationally, but would love if your child learned Mandarin. 

It's easy to rule out teaching your child a second language when you don't know it yourself (or to simply wait until they take a foreign language class in high school!). But there are many benefits of helping your child learn a foreign language early, even if it's Greek—or Spanish or French—to you. 

We chatted with our friend Liliana Diaz-Vazquez, M.S.,CCC-SLP/L, a bilingual speech language pathologist based in Chicago, for her insight. Below, you'll find her roar-worthy advice for immersing your child in a second language.


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Q: What should parents do if they don't speak a second language, but they want their child to? 


A: Research has shown that there are so many benefits of bilingualism, and parents who speak a second language can definitely have an advantage when seeking to teach their child a second language.


However, for those parents who do not, there are still many great ways to immerse your child in a new language. They can search online for schools that offer two-way bilingual/immersion programs or dual language programs in Spanish, Arabic, French, Korean, or any other language.


In these programs, the academic curriculum is taught in English and one other language, so that students develop bi-literacy skills and high levels of language proficiency in both.


Q: If your child's school doesn't have a dual language program, how else can you immerse them in another language if you don't speak it? 


A: Seeking childcare from people who speak another language is one great way for your child to obtain exposure to a new language. For instance, a bilingual babysitter can speak to your child in the second language, ensuring that he or she receives consistent exposure and modeling.


Setting up playdates within a diverse community can also encourage your child to establish friendships with other children that speak another language. Through consistent playdates, your child may be able to learn basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), which is the social language that one learns through formal and informal conversations with others.


Overall, parents should always remember that learning a new language is about meaningful interactions, consistency, and rich language modeling.  

Playing with Animals

Q: How can parents encourage their children to learn another language, or pique their interest in bilingualism, if they're not exposed to different languages in their community? 


A: Play and literacy is one of the best ways to encourage your child to learn a new language or become interested in a new language. Parents should encourage playful interactions amongst all their family members by learning to sing songs in another language, dancing to music in another language, or learning academic concepts such as the alphabet or numbers.


This will pique your child’s interest if everyone at home is on board! YouTube provides many great children’s songs in different languages, and tablet apps such as Gus on the Go can also help your child learn new vocabulary at home.


Also use bilingual books that provide text in two languages, and make it a part of your daily routine to read a new book every day to your child. This will boost vocabulary and ensure that your child establishes bi-literacy skills.  

Q: If parents have dual language books for their children to read, but don't know how to pronounce all of the second language's words themselves, what can they do? 


A: The best way is to simply look up the pronunciation on the Internet and listen back to an audio or video recording of the word. For instance, Google translate offers reliable pronunciation audio recordings of words that are typed in the search engine.


Q: What is one of the biggest myths about teaching children another language that you hear from parents?


A: Unfortunately, some parents are told by professionals or simply believe that exposing infants and toddlers to more than one language may cause delays in their speech or language development. I have also heard many families express concern that their bilingual child will have academic problems or difficulty learning in school.


These are mere myths! All children—including children with existing language delays or disorders—are capable of learning more than one language.


Bilingualism does not cause language delays, and as a matter of fact, there is plenty of research to suggest that there are academic advantages of being bilingual, including superior problem solving skills and multitasking skills, as well as increased cognitive flexibility (the ability to easily switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts at the same time).

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