Helping Children Learn a New Language: 10 Minutes at a Time

by contributor · 19 comments

Bilingual children 10 minutes a day

By Franck & Cristina
Photo credit: jules:stonesoup

Learning a new language is a fascinating experience. It can be transformational. Your perceptions about the people, their culture and traditions can change significantly. Instilling the love of learning languages in our children makes the whole experience even stronger.

But how and when do we actually do it? My wife and I both work full-time and raise 2 children. Like all parents we are busy and our plates are full. In the evening, we are tired and a lot is going on during week-ends.

Teaching children a language starts with a few small steps, a few minutes per day. It should not be overwhelming. We are all trying our best. Often, it is difficult for us to spend more than 10 minutes at any given time. 

Using everyday activities to teach a language is key. Integrating these habits into our week will generate huge language learning pay-offs. Just like compound interest.

Here are 8 things my wife and I use. Not more than 10 minutes at a time.

  • Tip #1: Breakfast tales
    Have your son or daughter select her favorite story in the target language and read it to her while having breakfast together.
  • Tip #2: Play their favorite sport
    If he or she likes soccer and you want your child to learn, for example, Spanish, pretend both of you are the 2 best Spanish soccer players. 5- to 10-minute game. No more.
  • Tip #3: Songs on the go
    When you drop your kids off at school, listen to two songs in the car in the target language on the way and sing them out loud while driving. Your children will eventually start singing with you.
  • Tip #4: Cartoon night
    Browse on YouTube and find a 10 minute cartoon to watch together in the language you are teaching or learning together. It could also be a song.
  • Tip #5: Shopping day
    Go to the corner store near your home to pick up a few things. Take the time to explain in the target language each item that you put into the cart.
  • Tip #6: Let’s cook together
    Have your children repeat all the names of the vegetables, fruits or other ingredients. Added bonus: not only do they learn a new language, they also take pride in eating what they cooked together with you.
  • Tip#7: iPad stories
    We allow our children to listen to 2 short stories on iPad on week-ends, in either French or Spanish. During that time I can pay my bills, and still feel that they are developing their comprehension skills.
  • Tip #8: Homework sprinkle
    I use homework books that my parents sent to me from France, adapted to my children’s age. I started with Elena when she was 2 years old. She is now 7. We do just 1 page of the book from time to time. Not more than 10 minutes. We do the same for Spanish and Chinese.

The goal is to fit these habits into each day of the week, between 5 and 10 minutes at a time. You will get a sense of accomplishment by doing each of them with your children. When you look back over the week, you will feel pretty good.

What are your favorite 10 minute language-learning tips for children?

Franck and Cristina are from France and Spain and now live in New Jersey, USA. Cristina grew up in the Basque Country, in Spain. Her best high school memories come from teaching English to young school children. She learned French when she met Franck. Cristina works for a consumer goods company. Franck grew up in Alsace, France, speaking Alsatian (a German dialect) with his parents and friends and learning French in school. He started learning German in elementary school and English in high school. He came to Boston where he was inspired to learn Spanish when he met his wife Cristina. Elena (7) and Pablo (4) are Franck & Cristina’s children. They live in New Jersey with their parents and speak English, Spanish and French. The whole family is learning Chinese. In order to expose Elena and Pablo to their first Mandarin Chinese words, Franck and Cristina created a free iPhone and iPad app, “Princesses Learn Chinese”.  Since then, they also released “Princesses Learn French” and “Princesses Learn Spanish.” You can visit their blog at www.earlylanguages.com

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Susan March 26, 2012 at 4:10 am

This was such a great article. I buy those homework books every time we go abroad and never seem to get around to them. I always feel like we need at least a half hour or why bother. This article gave me a fresh perspective.

I would love to know how well your kids do in both languages. Did it work?

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2 Franck March 26, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Hello Susan – Elena and Pablo switch naturally between the 3 languages. Elena is 7 and reads in all 3 languages. She is currently learning to write in them. Pablo who is 4 talks to me in French and to my wife in Spanish. My wife and I believe it works because we are consistent doing a little bit every day, whenever we have the opportunity to expose them to Spanish and French.

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3 Susan March 27, 2012 at 4:32 am

Hi–Thanks for the follow up. My husband and I are so consistent with staying in the L2 that it is almost obsessive, but the kids are doing great. They use Spanish with me an German with dad. I have noticed that a lot of the kids in my Spanish playgroup are starting to respond to their parents in English and I want to avoid that. Mine are only 4 and 2.5, so I guess if that day ever comes, the 10 minute rule will help us through any language rebellion.

Thanks again for a great article!

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4 Franck March 27, 2012 at 4:58 am

Hi Susan – There is one tip that I can share that helps us a lot keeping the focus with the kids. I learned Spanish and my wife learned French. So when the kids are around, we can have conversations in French and Spanish, without having to talk in English. This helps keep the focus within the family. Since we live in New Jersey, English will be the dominant language of our children, no matter what. In any case, let’s enjoy our journeys. Congratulations on what you do, I love your “obsession”!

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5 Jennifer Brunk March 26, 2012 at 8:33 am

Great article! This is very much the strategy I used raising my three children speaking Spanish and English. Although everyone needs a long-term plan to ensure bi-literacy, short, easy interactions that provide steady exposure are essential for us, the parents! Raising kids with two (or three) languages can be overwhelming – thanks for a practical and motivating article! I’ll be sure to share it with the parents of my students.

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6 Alex March 26, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Wonderful article! It’s very very encouraging, and we will definitely put these tips into practice. It also helped to encourage after my sister during lunch break at our classical education group said ” The tutor says that the reason we have problems with homework is because we are learning to many languages” ( we are relearning German, also adding French and Spanish) I felt quite frustrated , as I have been receiving these remarks for the past week. When the 9 and 7 year old refuse to respond in German or Spanish and then have to hear the negative comments, it is refreshing to know that there is help out there. Thank you so much! ( we love your apps)

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7 Franck March 27, 2012 at 4:49 am

Thanks for your words Alex and congratulations on your efforts. It is not easy to juggle it all. We have to trust our instincts on what we feel is right for our children. The passion and commitment of parents is something inspiring to children, who eventually will find their own passions. All we do as parents is opening doors, and children can choose later on which one they want to go through.

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8 Melissa April 1, 2012 at 5:13 am

Thanks so much for these great ideas!

My method has been to keep a basket of Spanish language books in my daughter’s room and when I think of it (used to be for a few minutes every day, but I always forget now!), invite my daughter to “do Spanish.” We go in her room and and switch her regular book basket for the Spanish books and I just follow her lead, reading to her if she wants, or playing with whatever she wants to play with, but speaking only in Spanish. We do this for as long as I have time, or she maintains interest.

Unfortunately, I forget, it gets monotonous, and it keeps our practice to one place and time instead of integrating it into everyday life, however, so I love the suggestions you make and would love to try to implement a few of them into the rest of our life :)

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9 Franck April 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm

I like the idea of the Spanish language basket very much. Being surrounded by things you bump into and that remind you to read, play or sing in Spanish is great!

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10 jenny April 30, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Hi,
thank you for the article, I have a similar situation I speak Russian to my daughter but my husband speaks 2 languages( native) – Lebanese and French, but he mostly use English and some French with her. Is there any suggestion on how he should use 2 of his native languages in speaking Arabic and French to our daughter? She is 2,5 by the way and speaks Russian and English and a little bit French and she knows some words in Arabic.
Also, how do teach them writing? Do you start early or wait until they know how to read and write in 1 language( English)
thank you

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11 Franck May 1, 2013 at 6:18 am

Hello Jenny. I speak fluently French, and this is my main language with our children. I am a beginner Chinese learner, and I also spend 10min a day to “teach” my son Chinese. Maybe your husband could try the same? Having either Arabic or French as the main language with your daughter, and use the other one as a “2nd language” (in your case the 4th language)?

As for writing, our children learn writing in 3 languages simultaneously: English at school, Spanish with my wife, French with me. Our daughter Elena (8) is now very creative in her writing in English, and we feel learning how to read and write in Spanish and French helped her with that. Each family situation is however different. There are no real rules, just what feels right for your family and your daughter.

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12 Lyn May 17, 2013 at 2:23 am

I think people sometimes get too worked up about how early kids should learn to write in their (or the parent’s) mother tongue. To me it is much more importanat that they have the chance to listen to the language and to use it ; the tips in the article are really good as a way to “keep at it” even if just a few minutes a day.
My son, growing up in Barcelona with English as his mother tongue, only learned to write in English when he started English lessons at school when he was 10. That was my deliberate choice, so that he had something new to learn with his classmates instead of sitting around bored. The first two languages he was taught to read and write at school, aged 6, were Spanish and German. From that knowledge he could read (decipher) English and Catalan before he was taught to write in them which was in fifth year at school.
Incidentally years ago I read “Die gerette Zunge”, the autobiography of Elias Canetti (Nobel prize-winner who wrote in German) and discovered that he had learned to write English first because his family happened to be living in Manchester when he started school. Obviously it wasn’t a problem for him that he only learned to write German later!!
However I don’t think growing up with several languages makes you a creative (imaginative) writer per se, I think it’s much more a question of individual character. Certainly in my son’s case, alhough he is very aware of language (nuances, translations etc) he was not creative in his writing for school homework in any language, his “creative writing” was so fact-based that a teacher once commented that he had misunderstood the task and should have invented a story and I wrote back that he HAD invented it in fact, it was just that to her it sounded like a report on his summer holiday!

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13 Lyn May 17, 2013 at 2:32 am

Oops, should have re-read for a third time before I posted! That book title should be “Die gerettete Zunge”. It’s available in an English translation “The tongue set free” and I can recommend it highly to see a child growing up with many languages. Amusing to read about his first attempts to speak French, also in Manchester: his pronunciation, following his Mancunian teacher’s, caused hilarity in his family (where they knew what French really sounded like; he’d already mentioned that his parents spoke French together when they didn’t want the kids to understand)

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14 Franck May 18, 2013 at 3:28 am

Hello Lyn, thank you for sharing all these great examples. I agree that the most important is to communicate verbally and have fun, in the early years and later on also. Each situation is different, we need to do in the 2nd language what we enjoy as parents and what our kids enjoy. The fun is in the journey.

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15 Steven French May 28, 2013 at 9:09 am

A lovely crisp and totally actionable post. Well done!

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16 Diana September 23, 2013 at 12:38 am

Hi
nice article! My husband and I are from Central America but we lived in Canada (Montreal) for 5 years and recently moved to France.
Out mother tongue is spanish, our second language is english and we learned french (not perfect). But now that we are in Paris, my daughter seems to have problems adjusting to school. She is going to a local school (french) but she cannot communicate with the others. Lately she has become fluent in spanish, which is great because I don’t want her to loose it . I don’t want to talk to her in french because i want her to associate me with spanish but I want to help her with the transition. Any ideas?? In the meantime I will download your app, it looks interesting. =)

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17 Franck September 23, 2013 at 3:26 am

Hello Diana, what a great experience for your daughter. And for sure your whole family will fall in love with Paris.

In our experience, when Elena and Pablo started preschool in New Jersey (at age 3 for both of them), they did not understand or speak English. It took them about 3 months to fully understand most of what the teacher said in class, and another 3 months to fully participate in class and raise their hands.

We made the transition easier for them by having lots of play dates with the best friends from preschool. We only stuck to French and Spanish at home. After 6 months in pre-school, they were able to communicate just like any other English native speaker. But the 6 months felt “long”, especially with our first one. Once our kids were 5 years old, we added 10 minutes of reading per day in English at home.

Not sure this can be of help for your situation. All the best.

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18 Candis March 15, 2014 at 5:59 am

Thank you for these tips! Your children are much further along in their bilingualism than my children but I am working on it. This is a recent post I wrote about how we are using iMovie to create short videos that help them practice listening to and reading (with the volume turned off) the second language.
http://www.bloomingbilinguals.blogspot.com/2014/03/studying-spanish-en-mi-casa-work-in.html

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