The question I get asked most of all goes something like this . . .
How do I introduce my child to another language when I don’t speak the language myself?
. . . which is, of course, a very good question.
The answer is that you can learn together – honestly, you can. Your level is going to be a step ahead of your child, especially if they are very young, and a step ahead is really all you need. You don’t need perfect pronunciation and grammar to be able to help your child move in the right direction in a new language. In fact, one research project found children could filter out the errors made by their parents when they also had access to listening to native speakers in the language they were trying to learn.
And here comes the crux . . . do you need to pay a private tutor, native in the language you are trying to learn so that your child can listen to the new language pronounced perfectly and with immaculate grammar? Well, you can certainly choose that route if you want to. There are lots of very good tutors around who do exactly this, and who work with children of all ages as well as adults.
But you don’t have to, and I certainly didn’t with my children. What I did (and still do, actually) was
1. make use of all the free stuff online and on TV.
This way you can give them access to something where the language is spoken by natives. You can sit young children down in front of something in another language without it phasing them. The key is choose something they really like. (Hint: Peppa Pig is available in French!). YouTube has been invaluable to me in finding French songs my children enjoy and most DVDs these days are available in multiple languages. My son was really into Tinkerbell when he was 2, so I tried him with this. His first reaction was to say the TV was broken (it had been a while since we had watched anything in French!) but once he got used to it, he was as glued to it as he would have been if it was in English, and when my 6-year-old daughter watched with him, she was able to work out what the French expressions meant, and to repeat them, because she already knew the expressions from having seen the film in English.
2. expose them to very familiar basic expressions
that we often used in English in a specific context, and also used the same phrases in French in that very same context.. For example, I would use ‘on y va’ instead of ‘let’s go’, and encourage ‘merci’ as well as ‘thank you’. You can find these sorts of phrases online , often with a recording of how they are supposed to sound, or in a simple French phrase book.
3. choose a specific setting that they were used to me talking in English, and instead speak in French.
I chose shopping. I learned how to say ‘Can you put that in the trolley?’ in French and just repeated it for every item we put in. You can make this as basic as you like. If you learn how to say ‘donne-moi’ (give me), you could try things like: ‘Donne-moi les oranges’. Even if the only bit you can remember is ‘donne-moi’, they are still learning a sound and associating it with a meaning.
4. try not to get disheartened and give up when I didn’t hear them saying things back to me in French.
My son is 3 1/2 and I have been speaking to him, (and reading and singing to him) in French and English for a long time. His English is beginning to come on quite a bit now, and he is managing fairly complex sentences at times, but his French is just an odd word here and there at the moment. HOWEVER, his understanding seems to be amazingly good. I was having a shopping trip with him a few months ago, and bought some chocolate, and said to him ‘le chocolat est pour Maman’ (the chocolate is for Mummy), and he burst into tears and said ‘My want it!’, so he had clearly understood.
5. do what I would do in English, but in French!
. . . So what do I mean? Well, to get children learning English, we sing with them, we do action rhymes and – all the rage now – we use sign-language of some kind to help them with their attention and communication. In fact, I found sign-language a really powerful tool when teaching French to nursery age children. Those children who were less confident in expressive language often used signs to begin with before they started speaking in French. It gave them that little boost of confidence they needed that they could communicate. I believe that it forms an anchor between their spoken English and spoken French. In fact, my main teaching method when I work with children, is signed singing in French, accompanied by signs based on British Sign Language. Take a look here to see me in action: Amber’s LMP.
I hope these tips have been useful to you. Please let me know if you try them out at home.