I often get parents asking me when they should start teaching their child English. Some think they should invest in courses or lessons, but these really aren't necessary at an early age. Most parents who I am talking to are considering English as a third language, though my advice can be helpful when learning English as a second language as well.
Here are my tips for children up until they start second grade:
- Include English books in your home library, and keep them in circulation for bedtime stories.
- Check to see if your child's favorite cartoon or movie is available in English. Chances are, your child will have watched their favorite videos multiple times. They will know the story, and will pick up on what is going on when watching the show in English.
- Play English kids songs during play time. Before you know it, your child will be singing along!
- Organize play dates with other parents where you do an activity in English. For example, a day at the zoo where your children can learn the names of animals in English. Or even a visit to the supermarket, learning words for food.
Parents should also realize that the country where you live will have the most linguistic influence on your developing child. Children are language sponges in their early years, though. It is possible to grow up bilingual, but one language will almost always emerge as dominant. The hardest part of this for most parents is realizing that their child's mother tongue may not be their own. Some children even outright reject the second language for a while -- which is why language learning should not be seen as 'work' by the child. It should be fun and engaging, as a way of bonding with mom and dad.
Your child may also not realize when they are speaking the second or third language. They will automatically associate certain people or even things with certain languages. For example, they may know mom and dad speak two languages, but when grandma comes to visit, they know only to use one language. As I once heard it explained to me, the mother tongue is in one drawer, and any other languages goes into the odds and ends drawer in your brain. So, as you learn a language, certain words may come up quicker -- and sometimes in the language you are not wanting to speak at the moment! This is part of the natural process of learning to speak more than one language. Therefore when young children are learning colors, for example, they may first say the color in their mother tongue. This is okay!! Validate their answer and say, 'Yes, that is right in Spanish, but what is it in English?' Realize that they are still learning general vocabulary in their own language, so it is natural that they would say this first, even if they know the word in the second language!
When you add a third language into the mix, you should also think about what your expectations are for all three languages. Is the mother tongue for school and interacting with the community? The second language for home? And possibly a third language to get a head start in school? English is almost always this third language, because it is so often used around the world. Kids in Europe all learn English starting at some point in elementary school. It is certainly a key to academic success, and offers many more opportunities for that child when they are grown and ready to enter the workforce.
Good luck! Buena suerte! Viel Glück! In bocca al lupo! Et bon courage!
And remember, have fun!