French or Spanish: Those were the two languages my son was torn between choosing for his sixth-grade language requirement. He really liked one of the Spanish teachers he met in fifth grade, but I had studied French when I was school. He saw both as advantages.
I have to admit, I nudged him a bit toward French. I thought it would be easier for me to help him with homework since I had previous exposure to the language.
He ultimately picked French and seems very happy with his choice, but I’m realizing that I could have helped him even if he had selected Spanish. There are numerous apps and websites focused on helping students learn a foreign language, such as Quizlet and Duolingo. Many allow a student to hear and repeat vocabulary words or phrases and do so in a way that engages the user, making it fun rather than tedious.
Even if parents don’t have any previous foreign language experiences or exposures to the languages their children are learning, parents can still support their children, said Denise Mahns, who teaches French at Fayetteville-Manlius High School in Onondaga County.
For starters: Ask what they are learning in class. That is just as important in a foreign language class as it is in any other academic class.
“It’s great for them to show off what they’ve learned,” Dr. Mahns said. “But be aware that they need some kind of stimulus. Find out what they’re talking about in class.”
Students typically won’t speak a language other than their primary language unless they are prompted, said Dr. Mahns. So ask what they are learning about and seek opportunities for them to practice the vocabulary they are studying.
And don’t be worried if when you ask, your child seems a bit lost about what’s happening in class. That’s perfectly normal for students new to a language, Dr. Mahns said.
“Ninety percent or more of the class discussion should be in the language other than English that they are learning,” she said. “They have to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
That can be tough for some students, especially at a time in their lives when peer group and social pressures are high, she said.
“The loss of social capital is something that can hold some kids back,” she said.
Set your child up for success by reminding them to practice. Practice is key so they can become comfortable speaking and listening to another language. Encouraging your child to study a little each day is helpful, Dr. Mahns said. The more repetition, the better—especially when it comes to spelling. She recommends that students write vocabulary words repeatedly as a tool to learn how to spell them.
“Practicing 10 minutes at a time is better than trying to cram it all in at once,” she said.
Looking for opportunities to expose your child to real-life situations where they can hear or speak the language they are learning is also helpful to keeping them engaged and reinforcing what they have studied, Dr. Mahns said. Songs, movies with subtitles and, if possible, travel present great opportunities for students to gain more exposure to the language they are learning.
“Anything you can do to get them interested in the language is great,” she said.
There are multiple benefits to speaking more than one language. Language learning has been shown to greatly enhance student performance across the curriculum, according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. According to several studies, people who study a language do significantly better on standardized tests, and there is mounting evidence that bi- and multi-lingual people are better at analyzing their surroundings, multitasking and problem solving, according to Psychology Today.
So helping your child to enjoy the language they are learning could have a ripple effect upon their academic experiences. And whether your child is new to learning a foreign language or has been studying one for multiple years, there are several ways for you to be involved in their education and to even have fun together.
My son and I recently read a children’s picture book written in French. While we didn’t know a lot of the words, we were able to figure most of them out because of the pictures—and a quick search on Google confirmed our guesses when we weren’t sure.
We’ve talked about trying our hands at cooking some French food next and plan to search the internet for some possible recipes. So it’s palatable, I’m thinking we’ll cook according to a recipe written in English, and then compare it to the same one translated into French.
My hope is if I can find ways outside of the classroom to peak his interest in learning the language, he will stay engaged in the classroom. And we’ll have some fun experiences together along the way.
How can you help?
- Help your child make time to practice.
- Each day, have your child teach you to say something in the language they are learning.
- Find cultural events connected to the language and culture being studied.
- Ask the teacher for resources your child can use at home.
- Provide videos, books and music in the language.
- Look for opportunities outside the classroom, such as a summer language camp.
Source: GreatSchools “Learning a second language: How parents can help”
Benefits of learning a language
Language learning has been shown to improve a student’s cognitive function, including, but not limited to:
- Enhanced Problem Solving Skills
- Improved Verbal and Spatial Abilities
- Improved Memory Function (long & short-term)
- Enhanced Creative Thinking Capacity
- Better Memory
- More Flexible and Creative Thinking
- Improved Attitude Toward the Target Language and Culture
These cognitive benefits of language learning have been shown to enhance student performance producing:
- Higher standardized test scores
- Higher reading achievement
- Expanded student vocabulary in native language (English)
- Higher academic performance at the college level
“Guiding Principles for Language Learning,” American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
Nancy Cole is a public information specialist and grant writer for Capital Region BOCES. She lives in Onondaga County with her fourth- and sixth-grade sons.