Ask an Expert: How can I help my child be confident in her second language skills?
It’s easy to feel self-conscious when you’re beginning to speak in a second language—even for us adults!—but that everyday practice is so very crucial for developing fluency.
That's why we visited with our friend Clarissa Duskin, M.Ed., a parent representative for the National Association for Bilingual Education and coordinator of English learners at
St. Lucie Public Schools in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Here, she shares her insight on what we can do to get kids speaking fearlessly out in the wild—just like Malty!
Q: Some children love learning a second language, but clam up when it comes to speaking it in public. How can parents help with this?
A: Children can get discouraged when they feel like they have to perform in front of others, so encourage a casual, one-word introduction such as “Hola!” to start. Then, help your child learn how to respond to a question like “How are you doing today?"
(for instance, by saying: "Bien, gracias.”). It’s short and simple, but it will boost the child’s confidence. Be sure to celebrate their attempts! You can also tell them it’s okay to say some words in their native language.
Provide opportunities for your children to interact with native speakers of the second language they are learning as often as possible. If they’re nervous, try to help them prepare beforehand: For instance, if you’re visiting a restaurant and want to encourage your child to order their meal in a second language, look at the menu online and practice ordering the food with her at home first to build up confidence.
Q: How can parents encourage their kids to stay patient and not give up when they can’t pronounce certain sounds in a second language yet?
A: Learning a second language can certainly be intimidating for a child. When children are young, the best way to teach a second language is through songs and play. Parents can teach children letter sounds through what I call “made-up songs.” Pick a catchy tune and sing the song to your child. When my daughter was learning English, I would make up songs to help her remember how to pronounce the sound “tion,” as in transportation.
Reading to a child or listening to audiobooks is also an interactive way to support language learning. Many companies have developed books to support learning specific letter sounds and songs. There are also many online sites with resources that you can access free of charge. (Editor’s note: Click here to read along with the free audiobook of Malty the Blue Tiger!)
Q: If a child is overwhelmed by the thought of learning a new language from scratch, or simply feels like it isn't possible, how can parents convince him to give it a try?
A: Talk it out! Every new experience may seem overwhelming at first, and we all cave into fear sometimes. Children need to know we have all felt that way at certain points in our lives. When my daughter was learning English, she cried often because she felt like she was never going to be fluent and be able to communicate her thoughts in it. So, we set attainable goals and read easy books together. Doing it together was the key—she needed to know I was with her every step of the way.
Make learning a second language a family experience, and something that you practice together. Choose a time during the day, like dinnertime, to speak that second language at home. Create sentence frameworks such as “Today I ate ____” to help children know what to say. Keep it short, and remember, this is not a time to correct errors or pronunciation—it is a time to build confidence and interest. Make it fun and laugh!
Q: Sometimes it may be a matter of preference rather than confidence—if your child is growing up in a bilingual household, but requests that conversations take place in one language over another, how can you stress the importance of practicing both?
A: Children need to be able to recognize the significance of learning a second language. Growing up in a bilingual home may mean that you have family members who only speak that second language, so visit with these family members as often as possible and promote that interaction. My children wanted to be able to communicate with family and friends who only spoke English, and because of that, I didn’t have to do much of the convincing. Realistically, there will always be a predominant language. It’s important to set specific times during the day where only the second language is spoken, but have fun with it—children need to enjoy the process of learning a second language, or they will resist it.
Q: Do you have any other tips that parents can use to help foster confidence in their children who are learning a new language?
A: Help your children make the connection between the second language they’re learning and their native language. I am currently attempting to learn Haitian-Creole, and there are so many words in that language that are pronounced similarly to words in Spanish and English. That has given me a lot of confidence! Help your child make that connection, and most importantly, enjoy the journey. Learning a second language is such a great opportunity to grow closer together as a family.