Motherhood & Language Learning: An Attempt to Reach the Lower Level of Babel

by Corey · 12 comments

Motherhood & Language Learning: An Attempt to Reach the Lower Level of Babel

Today’s Multilingual Living blog post is part of a “language learning moms blog carnival” inspired by Aaron Myers at The Everyday Language Learner. The posts in this carnival are written by moms, for moms and are intended to be a great resource of encouragement, advice, tips and ideas for language learning moms. If you’re a mom or if you know a mom who is (or would like to be) a language learner, we hope you will enjoy this post, share it with others and will visit the other posts from participating bloggers (see the links at bottom).

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: fimoculous

I am currently reading the book Babel No More, an investigative adventure into the lofty world of extreme language mastery. The author, Michael Erard, is a superb writer who keeps his readers captivated with his dedicated search for linguistic truth (armed with a healthy dose of skepticism). He takes us to a depth in language learning where anything seems possible and guides us to the extremities of human linguistic capabilities: hyperpolyglotism.

What’s a hyperpolyglot, you may ask? That’s a great question, because it all depends on whom you ask. 

Per a recent article by Michael Erard, hyperpolyglots are “are high intensity language learners who have been running a natural experiment on the upper limits of the ability to learn, speak, and use languages…”. But what does Erard mean when he says ‘upper limit’? Do six languages suffice? How about twenty? Erard’s findings uncover claims of of more than seventy!

The catch is this: how does one define ‘mastery’ when it comes to languages? Does it mean speaking, reading and writing each language at a native-like level? What about languages that we speak well but can’t read or write? And what about pronunciation – where does that come into the picture?

When it comes to language learning, I am definitely no hyperpolyglot, nor do I aspire to be one (even though I am in awe of their language abilities). As a full-time, homeschooling mother, I have enough on my hands in maintaining the few languages that I do have under my belt (at extremely varying degrees), let alone striving for a ‘hyper’ level of mastery.

However, I am inspired by the consistency, perseverance and skill that hyperpolyglots dedicate to their language learning. What if we followed their lead but on a smaller scale? Instead of striving to reach the heights of Babel, with 9+ hours of language learning a day, what if we applied the same techniques but in a more conservative attempt to reach, let’s say, the lower level of Babel? One or two floors up is all we need.

Language Learning with Children

Language learning has become more difficult now that I am a mother of three. Even one floor up the Tower of Babel is a stretch these days. Prior to children, I had long expanses of quietude where language learning took place uninterrupted. I could put on headphones and listen to an entire radio broadcast without a single need to press the pause button to answer a child’s inquiry. Nowadays, it seems that the only time I can devote myself to that kind of focused language learning is in the evenings (when, honestly, I would rather crash head-first into bed).

Of course, these are just excuses. There is really nothing about being a busy mother that should stop me completely from language learning. What it really comes down to is making language learning a priority and dedicating myself to incorporating it into my daily routine. In fact, language learning with children around can actually make it even more fun!

Nowadays, I include my children as integral elements of my language learning process. We strike up spontaneous dialogs and drill one another on vocabulary words from across the room. What about the times when my children don’t want to participate? I have extra fun annoying them with all of the new words and sentences I have been learning! Saying, “Take out the trash you silly green monster!” in Spanish adds a whole new level of joviality to the day.

Here are a few tips for how to go about language learning with children underfoot:

  • Inclusion is key: Unless your children are at ‘that age’ where watching their mother learn a new language is “the most embarrassing thing on earth,” do what you can to involve your children in the process. You can even include them from the very beginning in choosing language-learning materials! Don’t worry, you don’t have to sit and learn each and every lesson together. Instead, pull your kids into the fun by learning some things (with or without them) and then teaching it to them while driving to the library or going for a walk around the lake.
  • Go for immersion: Get some audio CDs (even ones that drone on with repetitive sentences will do) and put them on in the kitchen while making breakfast and then just leave them on all day (press the ‘repeat all’ button!). Don’t try and listen to everything in absolute detail! Just put them on and repeat the words and sounds when you notice them.
    Another tip is to put on music in the language throughout the day (especially in the car!). Before you know it, you and your kids will be singing along even if you don’t know what the words mean! The nice thing about this kind of immersion is that you won’t get annoyed if your kids interrupt you while you are trying to focus on a lesson. Take care of your kids’ needs and then just continue listening at the point wherever the CD might be.
  • Get your visual groove on: Find some online TV programs and films in the target language and let yourself get hooked! The benefit of online programs is that you can pause and rewind them as often as you need. Pick out some family-friendly programs and your children can get involved with you! As with the CDs: even if you aren’t paying 100% attention while the program is playing, that is ok. Just hearing the words being spoken is worth a lot – honestly! Ideally you will be able to find an online TV series that captures your attention enough that you will look forward to each new episode. Getting hooked will do wonders for your language skills (even if your spouse thinks you are nuts)!
  • Read, read, read! Find books that are at your language level and read them each and every day without exception! You don’t need to spend hours a day doing this. 15-30 minutes should do it as long as you are consistent. Find some children’s books as well that you can read out loud to your children every day. Bilingual books are a great option for this because you can read the foreign language out loud while being able to understand what you are reading.
  • Get together and share: Getting together with other moms who are learning the language can be a ton of fun and can help you pool resources, ideas and support. Set up a playgroup where you and the other language-learning parents try out your new-found language skills together. Maybe each of you reads a book out loud to the children in the foreign language? Or you sing some songs together?
    Another idea is to get together with another mom who is a native-speaker of the language you are trying to learn and who wants to learn your language. Get together once a week and help one another learn each other’s languages! Add to the fun by having each of you do a storytime and music time in your own language – that will get the kids involved and will help each of you pick up on the pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar from one another.

These are just a few tips for how to learn languages when motherhood takes priority. As moms, we often feel that because our parenting and household duties are number one, things like language learning needs to be relegated to the bottom of the list. Integrating language learning into our daily activities, together with our children, is the key to making it fun, productive and satisfying.

Who knows, our children might end up being the ones giving us language advice after a few weeks of listening to CDs on repeat in the kitchen. Pick your foreign language TV soap operas well – your children will be discussing the details of the plot in no time!

Thanks for reading my post for the “language learning moms blogging carnival.” Please check out the following posts by other mom bloggers participating in this carnival.

Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read all of the posts listed below and I specifically removed one link (thanks to a head’s up from a Twitter follower) because it endorsed taking children to a certain fast-food restaurant chain to encourage language learning! This is something I am against for many, many different reasons.


The Story of How It Worked For Me: One Mom’s Journey at The Everyday Language Learner
Language Learning Carnival
at Sahm Sisters
7 Tips to Learn a New Language as a Mom
at Early Languages
The Lazy Expat Mom’s Guide to Language Learning
at I Was An Expat Wife
10 Tips to learning a New Language and Surviving it Mentally
at Rachel’s Rantings

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 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maria February 9, 2012 at 5:53 am

Another great post full of practical suggestions. I find that as the kids pull ahead of the parents in their language-learning journey, we can learn a lot from them by letting them show off their superior skills. My daughters get a kick out of teaching me something I don’t know, and if I ask them to explain it several times (because Mom is, you know, old and can’t remember things so well), we all benefit from the repetition. Sneaky? Sure. But sooo effective. 🙂


2 Rachel February 9, 2012 at 6:15 am

I love that you also included language learning with children. It is a bit part of our expat parenting life.


3 Carsten Peters February 9, 2012 at 6:33 am

Thanks for the article. “Babel no more” is a great book.
I love this sentence on page 14:
Hyperpolyglots are avatars of the “will to plasticity”.


4 Lorien February 9, 2012 at 7:53 am

I’m a mom who happens to work for a language learning company. We offer a free download version of our vocabulary software, Byki, in 70+ languages. I’ve been trying to make time to learn German for like 2 years now, and I have the Byki iPhone app for it also. What’s started to happen is that I play with the app at night with my daughter (6 y.o.) and we’re sort of starting to pick up phrases together, which is fantastic. She loves saying, “Guten tag, frau Mommy” and explaining to her dad that he is “herre” not “frau.” 🙂 I have to say that one of the main reasons I’m picking it up again and have any HOPE of learning it is because of her!


5 Justine Ickes February 9, 2012 at 10:48 am

Once again, great tips, Corey. I’ve been listening to Turkish language CDs in the car and have downloaded some lessons to my iPod. But I’d never thought of using them as ambient music, so to speak, when I’m in the kitchen or doing other errands around the house. The Babel book sounds very interesting. The illustration is wild!


6 Aaron February 9, 2012 at 11:21 am

Great ideas for including kids. I think we learned a lot of language by watching Turkish cartoons! The kids used to complain and ask to watch it in English. Now they don’t seem to mind which langugae we watch in. Great post!



7 Franck February 9, 2012 at 7:31 pm

I really like the way you integrate language learning with everyday activities. It makes it fun and not so much of a big deal. Thanks for sharing.


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