9 Tips for Successful Language Learning

by Corey · 16 comments

By Corey Heller

As we all know, studying a language is different from living a language.  There is a very directed and purposeful process that occurs when we study a language.

This makes sense: as adults, we already understand how language works (grammar, declensions, parts of speech) so we now apply those rules to yet another language. We study the pieces bit by bit and then use them to construct new sentences with these individual pieces.  However, our children shouldn’t be expected to study our language(s).  Talk about boring!

Language living is what we do when we share our language with our children on a daily basis: we surround them with our languages and allow them to absorb these languages over time.  We may point out grammar errors now and then but ultimately we are our children’s example for how to use languages in every day life and we share it with them without expecting them to understand the underlying constructs.

This doesn’t mean that our children won’t reach a point where they too will study their languages (e.g. here in the USA we take many years of English classes to learn about our languages – and we still may not understand it), which is in itself a fascinating subject!

Learning a Language as a Family

As most people know, my family and I are learning Spanish as a second language during our Language Challenge 101 adventure.  Yes, we are spending a lot of time studying it, not necessarily living it (at least not yet) since it is a brand new language for us.  Studying a language is no small task but it can be so much fun to do it as a family.  I highly recommend it!

If you are learning a second language as a family, here are some tips that my family would like to pass on from our own experiences:

  • Playful. It has been particularly important for my husband and me to just let go of the weight of learning Spanish and instead play with it as much as possible.  Our kids have followed our lead and can see that being playful is not only ok, it is the best way to approach it.  We act out the language, crawl on the floor to imitate animals, call out colors in the grocery store.  It is such a wonderful excuse to spend time together having fun!
  • Make Mistakes. Contrary to what comes naturally to us adults, making mistakes in language learning is the best thing that can happen, especially when someone else points them out.  The sooner we give ourselves permission to make mistakes (lots and lots of mistakes), the sooner we can move on to the real process of learning a language.  Plus, laughing at our own mistakes makes for so much family fun.
  • Daily. My family and I have tried to make sure that we are all exposed to some Spanish language every day.  We don’t have a set amount of time.  If the kids watch one Spanish-language DVD, that is fine.  Then we try to use some of the words from the DVD for the rest of the day.  It isn’t our ideal but it definitely helps.  And if we don’t get to any Spanish for a day or two, we don’t beat ourselves up either!
  • Incentive. Rather than approaching Spanish language learning as something we must do, we use it as an incentive.  If we can get in a half an hour of Spanish, then we treat ourselves to a popsicle outside in the back yard (which means even more bonding time) or to something else fun that we’d all like to do.  It isn’t used as a punishment!  It is an incentive and a way to keep ourselves motivated.
  • Speaking. Speak the language as much as possible!  My family and I do this all the time without caring whether the words are correctly pronounced or not and whether we know exactly what all of them mean.  The language is so very lovely and we love to let it roll off the tongue. Often I will put on a podcast of some random dialog while making dinner, folding the clothes or going for a walk and just repeat the words and sentences whether I recognize them or not.
  • Be Inefficient! It can be so hard to get out of our “training” which says that we need to be efficient and moving forward in an accountable way.  Throw that out the window if it starts to discourage you!  This is not school and we have no one to answer to but ourselves and our own family.  I feel how hard this has been for my husband and myself during Language Challenge 101.  Old habits (and language training) are hard to break!
  • Learn From the One Another. One of the best parts about learning a language together with my family has been the give and take between each of us.  Each of us has been in a situation of correcting another family member (including my 5 year old).  It is fabulous!  Not only does this help each of us feel empowered by our language learning, it puts us all on a level playing field where we can truly share in the experience as equals.
  • Learning Styles. We definitely each have different ways of learning.  The joy of learning a language with my family has been seeing how each of us responds to language differently.  Some of us prefer visual input, others audio and some by writing things down.  Sometimes having a translation has been beneficial, other times just listening even when we didn’t understand was most enjoyable.  My husband realized how much he enjoys writing things on index cards and then taking them with him when he walks to the store!  It must be working because his vocabulary is expanding all the time.
  • Emotion. Learning a language can be very emotional – in fact, I believe it should be to some degree to really have an impact.  There is so much more to the whole experience of learning a language than the language itself.  Culture, music, food and more all come along with the language by default and have an impact on us.  And we should remember that as it is very personal, this means we need to accept the fact that each of us will experience it differently and on our own terms.

Those are my 9 Tips for Successful Language Learning.  Can you add a 10th to this list?  Or an 11th, 12th…. and more?  Please share!

What are your experiences learning a language?  Do you have some additional tips?  Do you feel an emotional connection to the language(s) that you have learned?  Please share your thoughts!

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 bes4fture October 20, 2010 at 11:41 am

I have a question about bilingual teaching. I spoke Chinese only to my baby, but I read her books both in Chinese and in English. Whne she began to talk, she talk more English than Chinese. Did I do something wrong? Should I just read to her in English?


2 Corey November 19, 2010 at 11:08 pm

I agree with Theresa’s comment below! Our children are surrounded by the community language and hear it all the time. What I would recommend is that you pay a lot of attention to how often you and others speak English around and to your child. It is sometimes surprising how often a language is being spoken when we aren’t paying attention.

As Theresa says, definitely stick with Chinese! It is important for so many reasons – mainly for the bond between you and your child. Studies show that when our children have a rich language environment at home in any language, it helps their school language! So provide your daughter with as much Chinese as possible at home and it will do her good!


3 Bernicy January 11, 2011 at 6:35 pm

I also spoke Chinese (Cantonese) only to my daughter when she was a baby. When I tell her bedtime stories, I just tell the stories in Chinese instead of reading word by word the exact text the books are written. So it didn’t matter what language books I was “reading” to her; I was just telling her the stories in Chinese.

She’s 5 yrs old now and she only speaks with me in Cantonese. A few times I actually read her the book (it was an English one) the exact text it was written, and she kept telling me to stop and tell her the stories in Chinese. She didn’t like me speaking anything else but Cantonese with her. Really funny.


4 Theresa October 23, 2010 at 7:28 pm

I don’t think you did anything wrong. I think while they are still too young to read themselves, it makes more sense for you to read in only Chinese, if that is the language you speak to her, because that solidifies her connection between you and the Chinese language. When she gets older this is less important. But living in the US, it is hard to keep the children from preferring the language that is all around them when they get to a social age. My oldest spoke very little English when she was little because she was shy and didn’t want to speak to people outside the family, but the younger ones were more social and English came into their world more quickly.


5 Gemma October 28, 2010 at 10:58 pm

Daily lessons have become key when teaching Spanish for kids. I’m also studying Italian (can you believe it!) and found that if I skip a day of practicing… I can sense a halt in my improvement.


6 Corey November 19, 2010 at 11:10 pm

I so agree with this, Gemma! Now that my husband is teaching again (summer is over) he notices how quickly his Spanish has been forgotten. He is able to pick it up again but it is definitely more of an effort than if he had been doing a bit every day. Now that we are busier, we need to get more creative – ways that we can be exposed to Spanish even during our busy days!


7 Marjorie (PaperTigers) February 2, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Such an inspiring list of ideas – one day I would love for all my family to start learning a language together. I shall definitely earmark your post for future reference!


8 Bilingue per Gioco February 6, 2011 at 9:51 pm

I really like this article, it’s so easy to focus on “results” and forget to just have fun, take it easy and enjoy the process.
If I can add another tip, it would be to make it more than a family thing. This can be difficult at times, but it’s key to involve has many people as possible in the language experience, ideally they should be real people, people you can talk to and who would talk to you, if that is not an option, it is still important to personalize the language, may be by studying the culture, specific role models of that language, holidays, name it… When mum and dad will no longer be the centre of the universe this will pay off…


9 Sarah @ Baby Bilingual February 13, 2011 at 11:22 am

Yes, like attending a storytime or playgroup in the target language, or a festival that celebrates elements of a culture/country where the target language is spoken. (Probably not so hard for Corey’s family learning Spanish, but much more challenging depending on which language you’re working on and where you live.)

What about Skyping with a family who speaks the target language and whose kids are approximately the same age as yours? And when the kids progess to being literate in that language, they can be penpals with their Skype friends.

To Corey’s suggestions, I’d also add that it’s important to expose the learners to the written word–songs, nursery rhymes, poems, stories, bilingual books, audio books, etc. Encountering new vocabulary and grammatical constructions in context while reading is a very efficient and meaningul way to acquire language!


10 Margaret Nahmias October 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Well if you don’t have people in real life in which you can share the experience there are online groups. For me it doesn’t bring people together.


11 Erik Zidowecki August 10, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Great article! I like the approach of learning a language as a family. It instantly makes it fun and a challenge while having others supporting you. You also always have someone else to practice with.


12 Mumzone October 15, 2014 at 12:40 am

Yes, we are spending a lot of time studying it, not necessarily living it (at least not yet) since it is a brand new language for us. Studying a language is no small task but it can be so much fun to do it as a family. I highly recommend it!


13 Spanish school Costa Rica January 17, 2015 at 1:10 am

This is really a great article. The tips are useful for learning a language. We all seem to manage to pick up our own language with incredible speed, be it through reading, song, conversation, nursery rhymes, even inventing our own words sometimes.


14 Finn thye October 27, 2015 at 6:04 pm

What resources do you recommend for either strategies or English phrase lists that are helpful for parents learning a language while teaching their kids? Do you know of any apps or other language technology designed for families learning together? I am a linguist with the Northern Arapaho where endangered language revitalization is a critical matter. Thank you for this great post.


15 Mom of two April 25, 2016 at 9:20 am

I speak only my native language to my 3 year and 1 year old. When I first started my 3 year old with daycare, it was hard for her to understand anything they speak as she was not introduced to English at home. But later on she started to pick up English a lot, and reduced talking native language at home. Still I talk to her in my native language, but I have to force her to talk to me back in the same native language. When she plays with her sister, its always English there. I feel she doesn’t speak both languages fluently now. I don’t know whats that I am doing wrong, and how do I make them love the native language


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