5 Steps to teach your Kids a Second Language

Many bilingual mums and dads find it difficult to teach their children a second language because they refuse to use it. Today I will present 5 things to do when teaching kids a second language.

Like many other bilingual mums, I experienced many frustrations, especially after spending time getting some plans together, finding resources, printing out workbooks, and even spending money to get learning material for them.

Not to mention the time I spent actually teaching them to speak and read in Chinese. In this blog post, I will go “behind the scenes” and unravel the truth about children’s reluctance to learn a second language. Then I will provide good tips on how to find a way to work it out for us.

1. Find out if your kids feel uneasy about learning 

Let’s face it; nobody likes to face an uneasy and uncomfortable situation. When we are asked to give a speech in a foreign language, swim in a deep ocean we don’t usually do, or go to a foreign country to talk to people who speak no word of English; the initial reaction is to say ‘NO’ right away, find an excuse, and run as far away as possible. This goes with kids, too; they will shut down immediately when they feel uneasy.

My older daughter B goes to a local Chinese school every Sunday, but my boy M refuses to go for a long, long time until I finally convince him. He won’t go because he can’t find friends there, making him very uneasy in the surroundings. He also finds it very silly that he can’t speak Mandarin Chinese well compared to other kids in the class.

I managed to find out the truth by talking to him openly. Then I found out one of my friend’s daughters, who is in the same situation as my boy, born in a bilingual family, will also go to the school. Her mum also finds it very hard to teach Mandarin Chinese at home, which is also mum’s mother tongue.

Having a friend at the Chinese school, my son M is much happier. The simple thing that makes children do something they refuse to do is often very simple, but you just have to ask for it.

Summary

  • Find the reasons: What makes your children uneasy? What things make them annoyed? What is the reason they feel that way? What do they wish was different? Have a sit-down conversation with your kids and listen to them. You will have a better chance to understand them and find the solution for them.
  • A good explanation about ‘uneasy’ will do the trick: Use your own childhood case to explain to them how you faced an uneasy situation and explain how it has helped you as an adult.
  • Children admire their parents and often see them as their life models. Your experience will give them a good reason to put themselves in an uneasy situation and try to overcome it. You can also tell them how you get stressed and frustrated at times; you will be surprised to find out how much your kids are willing to do to ‘help’ you! After all, they want to be mum and dad’s heroes!

Find out if your kids feel uneasy about learning 

2. Keep a Record of Kids’ Progress on Second Language Learning

Making progress when teaching kids a second language is hard. We should all prepare ourselves to face this difficulty with patience, a good plan, and a reward system. Do not let the frustration get in the way of your kids’ second language learning.

Kids can easily forget what they learned. Language learning takes time, effort, and persistence. Keeping a record of what’s learned is an important task.

Summary

  • Realistic goal setting and plan: Set a realistic goal for you and your kids. So it can be realistically achieved yet inspire kids’ interest simultaneously. Try not to compare your kids to others who are more advanced in the target language you are teaching. Kids are all different; they all learn at different paces.
  • Draw a plan that is suitable to your own kids: Do not rush them to a race unless it will inspire your kids’ progress in language learning. After all, they don’t need many trophies in their cupboard but a life-long skill that can take them a long way in life.
  • Reward well: Set up a good reward system for your kids’ learning. A weekend trip away or their favorite toy store. This will not only encourage their learning along the way. It also teaches them the philosophy of ‘NO PAIN, NO GAIN.’ The hard work will be paid off if they follow the path well.

Keep a Record of Kids' Progress on Second Language Learning

3. Find a Speaking Environment

This is always the hurdle faced by bilingual/multilingual mums and teachers. In an English-speaking country like where I am now in the UK. All resources and neighborhood displays are in English. Your kids DO NOT have a speaking environment. This increases the chance your kids refuse to speak a second language.

Summary

  • Local language learning school or community: Both of my kids go to a Chinese Language school religiously. I stayed in the class with my boy M several times until he felt he could stay learning on his own. This is by no mean the ONLY solution. But pairing your kids with other like-minded families and kids will definitely help.
  • Local library or groups: You might also try the local library to see if any local group is running in your area. Joining with others who speak the target language is the most natural way to teach kids a second language.
  • Pen pal: You could also try to find a pen pal but only when your kids’ writing skill is well developed.
  • A private tutor can help: This works the most advanced way but depends on your budget. A tutor can work her magic more than bilingual parents themselves. Why? Simply your kids pay more attention to them, knowing that a tutor’s single purpose is to teach them a language skill!

Find a Speaking Environment

4. Find Reasons to Use the Target Language

Growing up in a non-English-speaking country, I am passionate about learning and using the language. I love English singers and English literature. My passion has driven me to learn and practice my target language daily.

What if your kids have no reason to speak a second language? Finding a reason for your kids is another task for you to do when teaching kids a second language.

Summary

  • Give a chance for them to use the language of a real person: I let my kids speak to my mum in China via WeChat (a Chinese app like Whatsapp) and make them understand if they do not speak to my mum in Mandarin Chinese, they can not help her in any way they want to.
  • In a little false emergency: For example, I will tell my kids to say how to wish grandma to recover from a little sore shoulder or back. This works wonders, as my kids believe by saying those Chinese words, they help their grandma to get better. On the other hand, my mum is thrilled to hear her grandchildren speak her language. See, double win-win!
  • Culture love: I regularly take my kids back to China on holiday. So they can spend time with their grandparents and also go on trips to various attractions in China. The vast culture and historical attractions in the surroundings teach my kids automatically.
  • Kids learn better by seeing, experiencing, and feeling: By showing my kids the ancient temples, and imperial gardens, I present them with a good reason to learn the language so they can explore more on their own later on in life.

Find Reasons to Use the Target Language

5. Find a Fun Fact for Kids

Your kids will not want to learn the language if they find there’s no fun in it at all. Forcing it through will only make a bad impression on their mind. Then the connection between your kids and the language will become even looser.

Summary

  • Go to local cultural events
  • Find some traditional games
  • Go and watch target language films and read books in both languages
  • Allow kids to mark the pronunciation in English (they find it really funny with some sounds). For example, in Mandarin Chinese, the word ‘socks’ is very much like the English word ‘vase’!!!!

Find a Fun Fact for Kids

I hope you enjoy this post about 5 things to do when teaching kids a second language. If you have any other tips and experience. I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below and let me hear your thoughts!

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22 COMMENTS

  1. This is a very great topic and a wonderful writeup, I can only imagine teaching a kid a second language. I guess thanks to your writeup I wouldn’t have been able to even imagine it without putting “impossible” as the first word. You have done a good job putting this up, I really learn from it, keep up the good work. 

    • Hi thank you for your positive encouragement, language learning is really a mountain to climb, but parents must be persistant to help kids to improve. Thanks again! 

  2. Hi there, I must say I really enjoyed the five ways u listed in teaching kids the second language if their parents are bilingual. I must say I totally agreed with all the ways u listed in the article starting from the fist one which is finding out if the kids are uneasy learning the language till the last one which is finding fun fact for the kids. I believe this will really helps all parents to overcome this if they can follow this simple ways

    • Many thanks for your comment, hope it helps your kids’ language learning as well 🙂 

  3. In today’s society any advantage we can give to our kids will go a long way in their future.  Kids today have so many roadblocks that it really is our job as parents, caregivers, educators and adults to help pave their way as smoothly as we can into their future.I love the blueprint you are providing.  I would however ask how long would it really take for a child with no experience to actually learn a new language after only speaking English?Dale

    • Hi Dale, thanks for your comments, I’m afraid we can’t put a time stamp on a child’s learning, especially when it comes to language learning. But practice is key, giving the right environment and exposure, it could be a rapid process I believe. My two kids’ Chinese language skills improve dramatically after I spent 2 weeks in China:) 

  4. Hi 

    Thanks for writing an excellent step by step guideline about recommended things to do when teaching kids a second language. After reading your article, I got some inspiration to teach kids other language with fun’s activity. But I think if parents are too busy with their professional duty it will be tough to do that for kids. I believe private tutor can help through funny lessons. I am going to share it with my family members.

    • Many thanks for your comments! I do agree with ‘busy parents’ issue, but persistance is key! Thank you for sharing! 

  5. I agree with you that the most important thing, when it comes to teaching kids a second language, is listening to them and finding out why they are hesitant to learning. Once we understand where they are coming from, we can figure out a better way to get them interested in learning. I think sometimes as parents we want to preach or even demand. It doesn’t work. It is better to follow your advice and make it fun and get their buy-in. This will make them eager to learn a second language. Thanks for sharing your experience with your two children.

    • Thanks Wendy for your kind comments, to keep it fun is not easy, but sometimes it’s the only way to get kids learning, hope it will be helpful to your kids! 

  6. The famous motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, once said :”When it comes to learning a second language, kids don’t lack capacity. They only lack a teacher.” One key to teaching kids something regard as “uneasy,” is to make it interesting!Parents need to get actively involved if they want their children to understand and speak a second language. It is not just enough to send them to a foreign language school. My advice to parents is to create a speaking environment in your home if you can’t find one outside. My mom taught me her language as a kid by always using it when communicating.  Even though we speak English in the home, she regularly finds avenues to ask us questions using her language and expect us to respond using the same.

    • Thanks for your fantastic quote! We as parents must make the effort so our kids can have this valuable bilingual skills for their future! 

  7. Hi Kitty, I can relate well to this, my first son frustrates my efforts towards teaching him second language, he will simply feign tiredness and withdraw to himself. My son definitely feels uneasy whenever the issue of learning a second language comes up. I feel for your son, you know, looking at other kids speaking the Mandarin Chinese fluently will make him feel inadequate, and his only way of avoiding such will be to abstain from such gathering.Your tips are great, but like you said, if one finds himself/herself in an environment where the second language is not spoken, what can such a parent do? It is quite pathetic. I also love the notion of find a fun fact, kids love doing what they enjoy and if they don’t see any fun in it, no amount of forcing will make them to cooperate.

    • Thank you for such great comments! Feeling in their shoes might help kids overcome their barriers and we must try and try again with fun fact! All the best and thanks again! 

  8. Hello Kitty,

    I have read your article on 5 Things to Do When Teaching Kids a Second Language and i found it very useful. it is essential for new parents because they do not have enough experience of teaching children. i will share this post with my married friends and thanks a lot for publishing this post.

    • Thank you for your comments and hope it will help your friends’ kids as well. 

  9. Hi Kitty, there is so much to take away from this article. If it were all up to me, I would just hire a tutor to do the work, but the suggestions you made shows how rewarding it can be for me if I plan and get involved in their learning. I find planning some special motivation and rewards is a big point. That example with kids helping grandma to get better is such a good idea. I also applaud linking them with another kid in similar situation, if there is one nearby. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thank you for your comments, yes planning and rewarding are key for your kids’ language learning! Hope it helps your own kids too! 

  10. Hey, 

    I have read the whole article about 5 Things to Do When Teaching Kids a Second Language.Really this is a very informative article.I believe that these 5 tips you mentioned in your article are very worthy.After reading your article i have learn and find the proper way to teach our children second language.I agree with you that Our children will not learn the second language if they find there’s no fun.Thank you for sharing such a helpful article. I will share this article with my friends and relatives.

  11. I am currently experiencing this dilemma,so this article was specially for me. To be honest, I have never tried any of these approaches. And I am eager to try because it is very important to be able to give them the advantage of a second language. Funny enough, even though they haven’t learnt my mother tongue, I was trying to teach them Mandarin Chinese because I believed it would give them an edge in the future. I will look around for language classes that they can join and go from there. Hopefully, I can get testimonies soon.

    • Thank you for your comments, yes Mandarin Chinese if one of the most popular languages these days, just imagine, nearly 20% of the population speak the language on earth! Good luck with your kids’ teaching! 

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