Is Your Child Studying a Heritage Language? These 5 Tips Will Help Them Soar.

Is Your Child Studying a Heritage Language? These 5 Tips Will Help Them Soar.

Remember the first time your child made an observation and shared it with you?  Maybe it happened during a walk in the park, and your toddler turned to you and said, “Doggie barking.” How exciting was that! A typical mom reacts with a big smile, claps her hands or uses a high-pitched voice to let her

Remember the first time your child made an observation and shared it with you?  Maybe it happened during a walk in the park, and your toddler turned to you and said, “Doggie barking.” How exciting was that!

A typical mom reacts with a big smile, claps her hands or uses a high-pitched voice to let her little boy know what a great thing he did.  The child may not understand what the happy parent is saying, but he sure knows something awesome just happened.

But what if Mommy said, “No, Honey. THE doggie IS barking.”

Cue the screeching brakes.   

Parents intuitively know that when a child is taking those first, tentative steps communicating, it’s time for a celebration, not a grammar lesson.  The effort alone is a big deal, and fluency will come in time.  But when a grade schooler starts studying a foreign language, that insight can be lost.

If it’s a heritage language that mom or dad can speak, or if parents remember their high school Spanish or French, the tendency is to correct grammar, forgetting to add a dose of excitement.  That simple oversight can dampen a child’s enthusiasm—or extinguish it altogether.

But these five easy tactics can catapult your child’s interest in learning a new language and make you a trusted ally.

1.  Tell your child they’re brave

Stringing new words together and hoping they make sense—rather than lead to embarrassment—is a brave thing to do at any age.  Let your child know that her effort is a wonderful thing and that you’re really proud. This big picture approach will lessen her inhibitions about making mistakes and signal that it’s safe to practice the new language with you.  

2.  When you understand, converse

If your child says, “Yo quiere un helado,” ignore the fact that he’s using the wrong form of the verb, and just say, “¿Tú quieres un helado? Yo quiero un helado también.” (You want an ice cream? I want an ice cream too.) When you restate what he said, he’ll take pride in being understood and hear the correct way to say it.   

3.  When you don’t understand, take a shot

Some kids are so excited to use their new language that they immediately try telling whole stories.  If your child has just rattled off a few sentences in barely-comprehensible Mandarin or Greek, jump in with something like, “I think you’re telling me about your day at school, right?”  Then offer to help structure her ideas.

If you have no clue what she said, put a positive spin on it: “Sweetie, I’m so happy that we’re starting to have conversations in Korean. And I love how determined you are to learn. If you tell me what you just said, I’ll help you put the words together.” 

4.  Watch for the impact of relatives

When your child is learning a heritage language, grandparents, aunts and uncles will be anxious to lend support. In fact, for a lot of kids, the motivation to learn a heritage language is the ability to communicate more easily with extended family members. But relatives who are native speakers can have unreasonable expectations.

If your child perceives a criticism from someone whose opinion matters to him, or if he’s teased about a mispronunciation, it can crush his interest. So if your son is looking forward to sharing his fledgling Italian skills with his nonna, give her a heads up. Let Grandma know that progress may be slow at first, but that her encouragement can keep her grandson motivated.

5.  Get excited again!

Not only is your child learning a new language, they’re sharing it with you. Whether they’ve opened the door to conversation with trepidation or run in with abandon, you’ve got an opportunity to bolster them with your enthusiasm. And of course, that’s the key to fluency. Not grammar drills or boring repetition, but the fun of saying and understanding ideas in a whole new way.

Follow these tips and you’ll be your child’s favorite speaking buddy, and an important partner to his foreign language teacher.  Before long, your child will be on her way to enjoying the advantages of knowing another language.  And that will be fantástico.

Dori Quiñones is the Director of The Español Experience, a New York City-based, after-school program where children learn conversational Spanish.  She holds a master’s degree in strategic communications from Columbia University and is mom to bilingual twin tweens. 

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