What are my child’s language learning options anyway?

For busy moms and dads, sometimes it is a struggle to simply bring home the bacon, cook it too, and still have quality time with your children. When you try to add teaching your kids another language into the mix, it can seem like too much for one plate to hold. While there are certainly ways you can mix language learning and quality time at home, sometimes the best option for a family is to look for outside help. This can look different depending on where you are living, but there are certain things you can look for to help you evaluate your options and decide what is best for your family.

So, what are my options?

In general, there are seven different options that can be found, depending on your location. There are local schools, international schools, immersion schools, multilingual schools, private tutors, language exchanges and computer programs.

So how do these different options compare to each other?

Local schools

Local schools can be either public or private, and quality can vary greatly in any given country and even in any given city.  They are often the cheapest option, but language learning is rarely a high priority.  It is one of many courses that the students go through.  If you are a national of your country and your children already speak the national language, they may not get any foreign language exposure in their early grades, which is a shame since this is the time in their life when it will be easiest for them to pick up a new language.  If you are an expat or speaker of a language other than the national language, though, this gives you the opportunity to speak your native language at home as exclusively as possible while allowing your children to be immersed in the national language at school.  Your child will make friends with other children at this school, which will help reinforce their new language skills as they play together.

This is not without its difficulties though.  Be prepared for your child to struggle initially if they aren’t able to speak the national language well.  You may consider having them start school a grade lower than what is recommended for their age so that the academic subjects won’t be as much of a burden as they wrestle with the language.  Do not be surprised if the school district isn’t able to give you much help or support in this.  Their focus is on teaching in the national language, and they may not have much experience with helping speakers of other languages and may not understand the unique difficulties this brings.

Also, if your children are expats whose native language is in high demand, such as English or Spanish, they may face the unique situation that they are studying their native language as a foreign language subject.  Our daughter faced this in one school, and would often correct the teachers on their English.  While this boosted our daughter’s self-confidence, it didn’t help her relationship with these teachers.

International schools

Depending on the origin of the international school, a variety of languages may be offered, or the school itself may be primarily conducted in a foreign language.  Your child will likely have the opportunity to interact with both students and teachers from a variety of countries and languages, which will help to broaden their worldview and give them emotional fuel for their language learning journey.  Finding other bilingual or multilingual children helps them to see acquiring a new language as a normal thing.

The downside of these schools can be their prices.  Sometimes, they are so expensive that very few national children are able to attend them, which means your child will have less exposure to the local language and culture from their peers.  This can lead to feeling isolated from the local children around them.  Also, if the school is conducted in the child’s native language, foreign language instruction will most likely only be for a few hours a week, which will only allow them slow progress in a second language.

Immersion schools

It is increasingly common in some cities to have immersion schools available.  These are schools in which the majority of the instruction is carried out in a foreign language.  For example, an immersion school in the US may have students who are primarily native English speakers, but teach students all subjects (reading, math, history, etc), in Spanish.  Such schools can be great reinforcement for a new language, and give your child the opportunity to learn this new language with other students their own age.  Since it is the focus of these schools to teach students a foreign language, their methodologies are tailored towards that end, and they are much more prepared to help students who are struggling with the language.

Cost can vary at these schools, but in some cities, they are comparable to public schools.  There are even free immersion school programs in some states.

Multilingual schools

Your first question is probably, “How does this differ from an immersion school?” In an immersion school, class is conducted primarily in a foreign language for most students.  In a multilingual school, students progress from one language to another.  But like an immersion school, multiple subjects are covered in each language, so they get a very broad exposure to the language.  These types of schools are becoming increasingly popular in multilingual areas of the world where children may need one language at home, another at work, and a third for school or higher education.  This approach, specifically called Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education, or MTB-MLE, allows the students to first grasp concepts in their native language, and then relearn them in another language, so that their focus the second round is more on acquiring the vocabulary for the concepts they already know than it is learning a new concept altogether.

These schools are not as common in more monolingual areas like the US, but if you are living abroad, you may have better access to them.  For example, while living in Ukraine, our oldest daughter attended an MTB-MLE preschool.  The majority of the students there were native Russian speakers who were learning Ukrainian and English.  Our daughter jumped in to this and walked away fluent in Russian and with a strong grasp of Ukrainian as well.

Tutoring

Depending on your location, private tutoring can be available in a variety of forms.  If you need help finding a tutor, start by talking to the local school district to see what is available. They may offer one-on-one time with the normal foreign-language teacher, mentoring from older students, or recommendations for local private tutors.  There are also a number of online tutoring services available, including Family Language Solution’s tutoring services, that allow your student to get help online.  While we ourselves recommend tutoring, we also recommend being picky with your tutors.  Do not commit to a long-term arrangement until you see how well your child and the tutor interact.  If students get along well with their tutors, they can progress by leaps and bounds, and this is the most effective intensive means of studying a language. By intensive, I mean short, focused times as opposed to long, unstructured times.  On the other hand, if your student and the teacher have a poor relationship, this can embitter your child and cause them to resent language learning.

Tutoring is often also the most expensive option.  Depending on where you live in the world, tutors can charge anywhere from $15-$100 per hour.  But it is also often the most flexible.  It gives you the ability to work at your own pace and tailor your learning to your needs.  You can also sometimes find foreign students at universities who are willing to help your child for a more affordable price, but they will not likely have as much experience.  If that is the case, feel free to reach out to us for our language coaching services, where we can help you set up a language learning program and even give your tutor guidance to help them grow in their teaching abilities.

Language Exchanges

A language exchange is a program, usually through a website, that allows native speakers of various languages to connect with each other and help each other learn each others’ languages. The nice thing about these programs is that they are highly relational and give you direct access to native speakers. Also, many of these programs are free. The downside is, well, your language partners are like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to get!  

Sometimes you get lucky and find someone who is gifted at teaching and is glad to help you learn their language.  Other times, you find people who could care less about your language learning and only want to use you to help them with their goals. You may also encounter people whose main goal is more romantic than it is academic, and they can even be predatory.  Many of these exchange sites discourage this, and often require a minimum age for participants. These age limits may also be prohibitive in your quest to help your child learn language.  Even if your child meets the age requirements, parental monitoring is highly encouraged when using these language exchanges.

Computer Programs

There are a variety of computer programs, web platforms and apps for language learning.  Many have heard of Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and EuroTalk, for example. They provide the ultimate level of flexibility in language learning in that they can go anywhere you have a laptop or cellphone. These programs can range in price from free to hundreds of dollars per level.    In our experience, the general rule of thumb is you get what you pay for.  Free apps are easy on the wallet, but often they are developed by people who lack specialized training in the language, in the art of teaching, or in language learning principles.  Duolingo can fall in this category.  

Many of these programs have the advantage of feeling more like a game than a lesson, which is great for helping small children.  However, look to see whether or not you have the option to focus on speaking and listening versus reading and writing.  Many people lose their momentum in language learning because they are overcome early on by grammar, alphabets, spelling and punctuation.  We recommend, especially for young children, focusing primarily on listening and then speaking, and only after they have a firm grasp on literacy in their native language should they attempt to learn it in another.  

Another drawback of many of these programs is that they can seldom get a person past an intermediate understanding of the language.  They can help in memorizing important phrases and new vocabulary, but are by their very nature ridged. Language is something that is living, fluid, spontaneous, just like the people that use it. If you want your child to attain true fluency in the language, this is only possible through interaction with live human beings.   

Conclusion

Every child’s situation is unique, and needs to be treated as such.  If you are looking for different options to help your child acquire another language, take the time to look around and see what is available to you in your community and on the internet.  Be willing to sample different options before making a commitment.  And don’t be afraid to ask questions. Even if you don’t plan to teach your child one of the languages that Family Language Solutions offers, our staff of professional tutors and linguists would be more than willing to help you explore your options and decide on the best path for your child’s language learning.

 

 

 

About the Author: David

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