Language Learning: 5 Things NOT to Do When Learning A Language

 In Travel Tips

Our latest language learning post explores teaching your children several languages at an early age. Paz from the blog International Cravings dives into a few of the pitfalls parents can step into when trying to help their children learn along with ways to encourage their language development. 

Paz and her children speak English, Spanish and Mandarin

When you are learning another language or even more complicated trying to help your child learn another language the task can be daunting and frustrating. We all want our children to be those worldly people who can speak 5 different languages and have intelligent conversations around sports, arts, and humanities.  How do those people get there? What did their parents do?

As a TESOL certified teacher and a mother of two young children (5 & 2) who are now beginning to learn their 3rd language I have come to find that it is more about what NOT to do. Your good intentions could be the reason you are struggling.

Don’t correct your child’s pronunciation all the time.

You might speak the language or you can hear the difference between Dora or Kai Lan’s pronunciation and that of your child, or you overhear their language class and you notice their mispronunciation.

As parents we are naturally inclined to correct them, when we really shouldn’t. I have to stop myself with this all the time. Now some encouragement to what you think the proper pronunciation is fine, but correcting is not. Let me explain why…

First, you don’t want to discourage them and their efforts. It is all about making language enjoyable and who finds pronunciation drills exciting. If you make learning the language not fun your child won’t continue to pursue learning the language once you are done badgering them.

Second, you might not have the correct pronunciation yourself and you want them to use their ears to hear the sounds. Languages are tonal and understanding the tones of a language is half of learning a language.  So let your child have fun, you can correct them if you think they are completely wrong, however no badgering and remember they might hear the tones better than you.

Do not stay silent

People are sponges and they absorb information wherever they go and children are super sponges and absorb 110% of everything. If you child is taking a language course you need to get involved and get vocal. Encourage them to speak to you in their new language and try to communicate back.

Even if all you know is hola & gracias you could use that vocabulary on a regular basis in your house. That isn’t hard and takes very little effort.  You are showing them that language is fun and you are open to sounding a little silly too in your gringo accent.

The number one challenge all of my students have (adolescent & adult) is that they are afraid of sounding silly. We all know that fear and should acknowledge it is there, but we don’t have to feed into it.

Let your children know that they don’t need to worry about looking silly. When they hear & see you making the effort they think less about it being an issue and more about a way of just communicating. If you say things like “I sound silly speaking ____ language.” Well that is just what they will think and it will reduce their self-esteem in speaking that language.

Don’t worry about language/speaking delays

When introducing another language one huge concern by parents (me included) is will my child’s speech be delayed. Before I answer this question I want to share my personal story about my first child who is now 5 and speaking 3 languages.

We first started speaking English and Spanish to our baby girl at about 3 months old in hopes that she would be bilingual. We as parents knew nothing about raising a bilingual daughter. When she was 2 years old she still wasn’t really speaking. We didn’t understand what she was saying and started getting nervous.

Friends and family would ask questions about how many words can she speak….did you go to the doctor? It was nerve racking. So we did take her to a speech therapist who gave her a test and she scored off the charts in everything but speech she was about 10 months behind where she should be. 

As new parents we freaked out. We enrolled her in weekly speech therapy. Her speech improved a little but then the speech therapist recommended we stop the second language all together. We did. In about another 4-5 months her speech improved in English only and everyone was happy. She was no longer bilingual.

In retrospect I never would have put her in speech therapy or stopped the Spanish. There is no way to tell if she would have spoken any earlier if we had been speaking English the entire time. She could have just been a late talker and we should have embraced her learning style.

With our second child we encountered the same problem; however we kept up the Mandarin this time . He now can speak both English and Mandarin. His speech was also delayed (who knows exactly why). He is now two and a half and has an ear for English and Mandarin, and understands both languages.

His brain did its’ thing and I believe the gift of Mandarin is more important than worrying about some chart he is supposed to match up to. There is no proof that a second language delays speech, but if it happens to you and your child, embrace the gift of language and don’t focus on any delays. It could be the same if you only spoke one language and then you have taken the early learning opportunity from them.

Don’t assume your child will get confused.

As we meet with families and they hear me speaking English, Spanish, and Mandarin to my children they always ask… aren’t you confusing your child? How do they keep the languages straight?

* Side note…I don’t speak Mandarin fluently, however enjoy learning with my kids.

The fact is that your child does not get confused. A child’s brain is an amazing machine and much more advanced than adults give it credit. Your child understands that there are three words that mean the same thing. For example, does your child get confused that nice, good, and like can mean the same thing in English?

    • I like that.
    • This is nice.
    • It is good.

Your meaning doesn’t confuse your child; it is only a different way to say something. When children learn language at a young enough age they are learning the language in the same cortex of the brain that they learned your first language.  Children are able to differentiate who to speak one language to and who not to speak another language to.

On our trip to visit family they wanted to hear our daughter speak Mandarin, her answer was; “Why? You don’t speak Mandarin. You speak English so shouldn’t I speak English to you?”  HA HA HA! I loved the answer because it was very common sense to her at age 5.

Don’t worry about grammar

Some people get caught up in grammar and although grammar is important you can’t let it stop you from communicating. All you grammar fanatics please save your hate mail…I know it is important, just hear me out.

When you are worried about if you are conjugating a verb properly or placing the adjective in the correct spot you are using more brain power than needed. Studies show that if you memorize phrases you learn a language faster than if you learn grammar first.

For example if you learn “I want _______,” you can communicate by adding one vocabulary word at a time and/or pointing at something.  Imagine if someone came up to you and said: “I bathroom want.” Tell me you don’t understand what that person is getting at. They obviously have to pee. Aren’t you glad that they are trying to speak your language at least?

Too many high school language rooms have you sit and study grammar and you rarely speak in class. This is so backwards to how language evolves. When you were 2 did your parents teach you the difference between an adjective and a noun, and its place in a sentence? No, you learned phrases. Obviously if you are an advanced speaker then yes grammar should be your next step, however if you are still learning don’t worry about grammar and just talk!

I hope that you find what NOT to do just as important as what you should be doing. Remember language learning should be fun and exciting. It is how the world communicates.

Paz is an avid adventurer in life and food. Traveling across the globe with two small children they enjoy language immersion and checking out the local eateries. Keep up with their travels via Facebook and on their blog

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Showing 3 comments
  • Jenna

    I completely agree with these tips, especially about not correcting pronunciation or grammar or worrying about delays. Great post!

  • Paz

    Jenna, Thanks for checking out the post! I wish I would have known about not worrying about the delays earlier. 🙂 Hopefully other parents can relax a bit. Thanks for reading.

  • Renee

    Great article, Paz. You’re dead right about not being afraid to sound silly and not getting hung up on perfect grammar.

    I studied both French & German in university, but majored in German. I could ace tests (in German) on the writings of Goethe or Thomas Mann, but could barely have a conversation. It annoys me to this day.

    Fast forward 20 years. With all the traveling we’ve done, my fear of making mistakes or looking silly has been annihilated. Yes I study grammar, but I also memorize phrases, and (at the beginning) use a lot of silly charades. It works! Conversational proficiency comes SO much faster now.

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