Before Sienna came into this world, languages were my utmost passion. I love speaking them, writing them, understanding them; and exploring the nuances and similarities between them. I love meeting the people languages bring me to, and experiencing those Shine A Life moments I wouldn't have if I could only communicate in my mother tongue. I love understanding a unique connotation, and it never being lost in translation because I simply never need to translate it. Language allows me to peer through the looking glass of culture, and learn from the way that different people do different things; as well as why they do them.
I am fluent in English, French and Spanish and have taught English professionally and privately for over six years (I also have a TEFL qualification). Because I know exactly what it takes to learn a foreign language, I feel I know how to help other people learn one too.
So when my British-Chilean Siennita arrived we started a new linguistic journey together. I try to give her the best of both worlds, embracing the culture and traditions of each country - an essential part of which is teaching her both English and Spanish (Chilean Spanish 😉). I spoke to Sienna purely in English until she was 13-months-old and we moved back to England from Chile. Once no longer absorbing Español* from her surroundings, I felt a need to teach Sienna Spanish, and let her learn English from everybody else around her (she has even now picked up the local Nottingham accent, ha!). It hasn't been easy, but Sienna now understands everything in both languages, and even some French which I have now introduced her to. Earlier this year Sienna started saying 4-5 word phrases in English, and she is now doing that in Spanish too! I didn't become fluent in a foreign language before I was at least twenty, so I find this absolutely amazing for my two-year-old!
I would like to share my first-hand experiences and tried-and-tested tips for learning a foreign language as an adult, as well as teaching one to your little linguist - because it's never too late, but the earlier the better:
Reading is the Key.
Reading in a foreign language provides you with the best foundation to become fluent in it. Never stop reading. You can read absolutely anything. When I was 17 I had a magazine subscription for Vogue France. When I was 18 living in Marseille I read the free Metro newspaper and simple children's books out-loud to improve my pronunciation. I remember hearing words for the first time that I had already read, so I could visualise how to spell them and use them grammatically. Hearing a word or phrase colloquially after having read it in a similar context reinforces that foundation and builds it up in your memory.
Sienna and I read every day. We read on our commute to work/nursery, we read at bedtime. We read in three languages. Children's books are a wonderful tool for both you and your little one because the images and simple language help you to instantly grasp new meanings; and as you read the same book again and again over a period of time your child automatically absorbs the language and effortlessly memorizes its vocabulary. Sienna will often read along, without me ever having tried to get her to repeat the words. According to Glenn and Janet Doman, very small children can even learn to read by means of repeatedly reading them large-printed words on flash cards every day.
Eat. Sleep. Learn Languages. Repeat.
It is essential to establish a routine with learning your foreign language and stick to it. If you are consistent then your learning curve will be effortless as much for you as for your little one. Think about how much smoother your daily routine is when you and your tot are actually able stick to something you've planned in advance. Do the same with learning languages. Be consistent and work hard, and it will all pay off.
Practice your Writing.
Be it a note to a friend, recopying grammatically correct phrases (I actually did this using a book on French grammar!!), a university assignment (I studied at Université d'Aix-Marseille and did Erasmus at Universidad de Valencia), transcribing a voicemail message, or an email to a client. You can practise your writing skills in many different ways and broaden your vocabulary at the same time. Being fluent in a language does not just mean being able to speak it flawlessly. Learn the language as best you can and you will never lose it.
Don't mind the People.
When speaking to new people for the first time in a foreign language they may often try to speak to you in your native tongue instead of theirs or assume you don't speak or understand their language very well. You don't need to let this set you back - the chances are these people don't know themselves what it really takes to learn a new language. And if they do, they probably just want to practise speaking a foreign language like you do! When I first moved to Marseilles and tried to speak to the locals they would almost always respond in English (not necessarily any better than my French). I always persisted and spoke back to them in French until they would reply in French too, and it was in those moments that I felt my oral skills significantly improve (no innuendo intended!!!). No matter how little my vocabulary was, I would always communicate in French. (Likewise, for over 20 months now I have only spoken to Sienna in Spanish apart from when correcting her English grammar).
When speaking to your little one in a foreign language you do not need to worry about any judgements from other people - you are doing a great thing for your child. Our nature is to fear the unknown but you can make them feel more comfortable by explaining what you are saying or why learning languages is an important part of your values. I am really lucky that my family is so supportive of me speaking to Sienna in Spanish - even my Grandma now understands “hola” and “agua”!
Resources are all around
You can learn vocabulary from absolutely everything around you. Walking down the street? Pay attention to the street signs. Shopping in the supermarket? Read the labels. Immersing yourself in a foreign language by moving to the country is probably the quickest way to learn but it isn't the only way. Just as you can teach your child an abundance of things just by studying what you can see out of the window, you can turn to a pocket dictionary, a library book, the Duolingo app or a language exchange group, no matter where you are.
If you enjoy learning languages then don't just stop at one or two. Learning another language is much easier the second time and imagine all of the extra people in this world you will be able to communicate and share wonderful moments with! I have recently started studying some Italian and have bought myself a French-Italian dictionary so that I further improve my French whilst learning Italian.
Please do not doubt that your little ones are able to learn two or more foreign languages – they absolutely are. The challenge will be you as a parent making the decision to teach them, making the effort, being confident, and sticking to it.
As you know by now this is my passion so if you have any experiences on this, I would love to know all about them! Please leave a comment below or get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome, Bienvenue, Bienvenidos, Benvenuto, Verwelkomen... to this great adventure! And amen to all of you polyglot people raising multilingual little munchkins! This is Shine A Life.
*Did you know that the official term for the Spanish language in Spanish is “Castellano”? In Chile and other South American countries, however, they call Spanish “Español” which actually means, “A Spanish Person”!