When my mother was a little girl, she lived a poor, challenging life in Puerto Rico.
But when she turned 7, my grandmother – who I call Ita – packed up their few belongings, and moved my mother and her sister to New York.
They had no money and they didn’t speak English.
Children of immigrants will understand the challenge my mom then faced, being the elder daughter, as she slowly built up her English vocabulary not only for herself, but to serve as a translator for Ita until she learned, too.
According to the Linguist Society of America, it’s significantly easier for infants and toddlers to learn a new language compared to an 18-year-old taking a French class.
“Researchers believe there may be a ‘critical period’ (lasting roughly from infancy until puberty) during which language acquisition is effortless,” according to the organization’s website. “According to these researchers, changes occur in the structure of the brain during puberty, and after that it is much harder to learn a new language.”
Even still, if my mom had access to the technology available now, she might have had a much easier time learning English.
Because, well, there’s an app for that.
Gus on the Go series
Gus on the Go is a collection of language learning apps available in Spanish, French, Mandarin, Greek, Arabic, Mandarin and more. While those apps will cost you $3.99 each, there are separate free versions such as Spanish for Kids with Stories by Gus on the Go.
The apps are recommended for children ages 3 to 7 and aim to take your child’s language development to the next level.
“Gus, the language loving owl, travels through familiar and timeless stories that incorporate auditory pronunciation and written Spanish language. Start off with animations that teacher vocabulary and build your way up to short sentences. Once your children have finished their interactive lesson and completed the story, they can play mini games that make learning fun and exciting,” according to a description in the iTunes App Store.
Intended for ages 2 to 6 years old, Pacca Alpaca is a “multilingual learning adventure.” Just choose from English, Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese, German or Welsh.
“Building upon your child’s natural sense of adventure and curiosity, Pacca Alpaca and his animal friends will teach your children vocabulary for shapes, colors and numbers whilst they explore the wonders of the world, first stop, Australia,” according to the app description.
Children will acquire words recorded by native-speaking children while they practice shapes, colors and numbers.
The app is free and has no in-app purchases or access to social media.
Studycat Language Learning
Studycat creates learning apps built to “engage, entertain and educate kids.”
The collection of apps, which are offered in English, Spanish, French, German and Chinese, are targeted at children aged 3-10.
“Studycat apps combine the benefits of conventional language courses with fun games, making the lessons more engaging for children. Plus, an original score and fun animated images will capture any user’s attention,” the app’s site says.
Students will cover basic vocabulary such as colors, foods, animals, body parts and more. The lessons present words in different contexts to reinforce their meanings.
The app is free to download, but features in-app purchases to unlock more levels.
Duolingo isn’t directly intended for use by children, but may be an app parents can use alongside them or on their own.
Offering more languages than the previously mentioned apps, users can choose from: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, Portuguese, Turkish, Dutch, Irish, Danish, Swedish, Ukrainian, Esperanto, Polish, Greek, Hungarian, Norwegian, Hebrew, Welsh, Swahili, Romanian and English.
“Practice your speaking, reading, listening and writing skills while playing a game! You’ll improve your vocabulary and grammar skills by answering questions and completing lessons. Start with basic verbs, phrases, and sentences, and learn new words daily,” the app’s website says.
Duolingo is a free app and creators boast that using it for 34 hours is equivalent to a semester’s worth of a university-level education.
Tips to teach a child a second language from Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology
- Surround the child with more than one language through conversations and social groups using different languages. The earlier the better.
- Maintain home (heritage) language when a second language is being learned outside the home.
- Expose children to multilingual settings and give them plenty of opportunities to play with children who speak the second language.
- Provide fun and interactive language-learning environments (e.g., music, dance and film) in both languages, and often with children of similar age.
- Promote reading and storytelling in multiple languages.
- Maintain a positive attitude toward languages and cultures children learn.
Alissa Scott is a public information specialist for the Capital Region BOCES Communications service in Albany, NY. She loves to go camping in the Adirondacks, DIY projects and her cat, Wednesday Addams.