How to Teach a Foreign Language in Homeschool

aaron in vietnam

I was only able to speak one language most of my life, English. I had to live abroad before I could learn a language. How can you help your children learn a foreign language?

The best way to teach a foreign language in homeschool is to create an environment for speaking, listening and conversation. Firstly, start early to build the vocabulary for basic communication in your home. Then develop conversations based on the daily activities in your home.

You can create an environment for the foreign language in your home. If you are monolingual like me, you can still help your child learn a second language. If you or your spouse is bilingual this is an excellent opportunity for you to teach a second language to your child. If you are just planning to start to learn a 2nd language and your child is already grown and monolingual then you still have a chance to develop these skills. The best way to teach a foreign language is to start from birth. In this case it will be easier since you can start earlier. 

To learn the 2nd language is really no different than learning the 1st language. Let me explain, with an example. My son grew up abroad, in Taiwan. This is a country where English is not the main language, it’s Mandarin Chinese. We spoke English in the home since he was born. Before we started to homeschool him, we sent him to preschool and Kindergarten. There the environment is Mandarin so he also picked up that language as well. He is now almost 6 and he is bilingual both in English and Mandarin. He can read at a basic level in both languages.

I also have 2 older children and they also are bilingual and in the same environment. Alex and Celena are 14 and 16 respectively. They can easily converse with their Grandparents on Skype in English in the United States. And they have done so since birth as well. As Colin Baker writes in his book Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism:

Language among young children is caught rather than taught

Colin Baker, A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism 

The reason I am bringing this up is that they all naturally learned the 2 languages since birth. And their main language spoken in daily life outside of the home is usually in Mandarin Chinese. But at home and with our family, it’s in English. They can all watch and listen to English movies and music with no problem. This is a lifestyle change that has facilitated the learning of a second language. Without it, I am afraid that they would not be able to learn English very well. It would be “drowned out” by the local language.      

Create a home environment to speak a foreign language

learning from sister
Learning from Sister

Many things start at home, especially for a homeschooler. A foreign language is no different. Why may this matter to you? If you are living in the United States, English will never be a problem for you! But we are living abroad and so we are speaking with our children in English at home as much as we can. This is to make sure they pick up the language. Maybe you would like to have your children learn Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or another language. Then this is still possible if you create the opportunity to practice in the home.

One Parent is Bilingual, One is Not

It depends on the age of your child, but the earlier you start the better. If one spouse is bilingual, they should only speak that target language with the child. And the other parent should learn some simple phrases as well to converse or communicate with the child. It doesn’t have to be spoken in a perfect flawless accent. The idea is to get them used to the language and sounds. It is also a good way for the parent to learn a new language as well. We will assume the spouse is cooperative! The research shows young kids growing up must have live interaction with languages from real speakers, not just from a DVD or audio players. Check the article below for the unique experiment.

Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning

Both Parents are Bilingual, an Ideal Language Environment

To begin with, you must insist on speaking the target language with all family members. We speak English since we are in a foreign environment during the day. I have no doubt that they will be able to pick up Chinese with ease since we live in Taiwan and they have to speak it when they go out. In the stores, restaurants and everywhere we go, they can practice the local language at any time. The majority of the time they are out of the home, they will most likely be speaking the local language. 

aaron and cousins

So this is just like in the case in the US. When you go out of course you will be able to pick up the local language more easily since you will be exposed to it more often. In the home you can just choose to speak the minority language, or target foreign language you want your children to learn. Take this precious opportunity to teach your child from a young age and you can also incorporate it with your other lessons as well. It might even be easier to teach certain subjects. It also provides many other learning opportunities to connect other stories from your own culture into the curriculum.   

Both Parents are Monolingual: Still Can Learn a Language

In our immediate family, we are quite unique. I have 4 cousins that are married to non-native English speaking spouses. They are all aiming to teach their children in their spouse’s native tongue. They are learning German, Spanish, and Japanese. My one cousin says that their 2 kids can understand 90% of what they say to them. And when they were younger, they only spoke Spanish with them. They did not maintain the environment of only speaking the minority language in their home.

They feel that the environment where they live just is not conducive to foreign language learning. But they believe if their children were to focus more attention on the language, they would be able to pick it up right where they left off. They have the vocabulary and understanding of the language, they only need to learn how to answer and be more confident in speaking the language.

The other cousins are in similar situations and do not use only the target or minority language in the family at home. So the results are similar and their children have been exposed to the target language, but not proficient and fluent. However, they all feel it is still better since they have a foundation for the language. And as they get older if they want to study it further then it should be easier. They are already familiar with the language since birth. Here are some more useful tips about bilingualism from the Linguistic Society of America. 

Learning a Foreign Language Requires Daily Practice

sealife in chinese
Sea life in Chinese

It may seem like common sense that to learn a new language you would need much practice. But a language is no different than learning the piano or any other extracurricular activity or sport. If you want your children to be proficient in a language you will need to spend the time on it. The recommendation is to spend at least 20-30 minutes per day with some lessons. And the rest of the time you should spend just practicing it in your daily life. Kids can pick it up easily and learning the basics of conversation in the home is very easy and practical.  

For everybody trying to raise a bilingual child, whatever your background and reason, it’s very important to realize that acquiring a language requires massive exposure to that language

Erika Hoff

There are no shortcuts to acquiring a new language and your immersion in it will make a big difference. Take me as an example. As a child, I grew up in Florida and my mother spoke her mother tongue with me as a baby until preschool. She said that until I was around 4 years old I could speak a little of her native Taiwanese language. But after going to preschool and going through a traditional education system, I naturally dropped the language. I also took 1 year of French and 1 year of Spanish and neither language sticks with me until today.  

30 Minutes a day of daily conversation as practice 

I started living and working in Taiwan and was forced to learn a new language by myself. After 30 minutes per day, I picked up a conversational book to teach myself with some easy to use phrases. And after 6 months I was able to get around with confidence. At the time, I was living in an environment with no English speakers except for a few co-workers. I was forced to learn and adapt and it worked. My experience was to learn some basic phrases, and some key questions in case I didn’t understand something. Then I could get the answers and learn the new vocabulary or new sentences. 

This was how I learned Mandarin and it was based on practice and immersion every day. I spent 30 minutes per day myself learning the phrases and vocabulary. And I practiced the sentences and conversation with the locals and used them as a reference and as a source of help. It worked well since I could easily add useful phrases that I actually needed. Not just textbook examples with little useful examples. I was learning practical use Mandarin Chinese.  

Conversations and Practice with Other Native Speakers

english with cousins
Aaron and Cousins

When my kids were younger, we would go back to the United States for our yearly family reunion during Christmas. We would have over 20 people in the same place for over a week. The kids would get to play with their cousins and they all became so close. And the interesting thing was my kids had to speak English. And they had fun and spoke at the same time. Their cousins even taught them some bad words as well. But overall they always spoke better English after these family reunions. 

A key indicator for me that this was important was that my kids also spoke more English with us without being reminded. And they had more confidence since they were around family who took the time and were patient. This is very important that they get to be around other native speakers of all ages. The practice and practical nature of language development requires not just listening to CDs, or Ipads. But kids must speak in real situations with real native speakers. 

Practice Language with Kids and Adults if Possible

grandpa and aaron
Playing with Grandpa

As a homeschooling parent you will need to arrange social opportunities for your children. And for foreig language development you will need to arrange some time with other native speakers. If you have other family members nearby, this is ideal to arrange time with them a few times per week. And if they have kids that is even more ideal. But if there are only other adult speakers available, then that is still sufficient. You need to arrange time with other people that are patient and can converse in useful ways with your children. Also take a notebook and observe which phrases or new vocabulary they need to work on. You might also learn something as well! 

Children of all ages will benefit from this kind of social interaction. But infants especially as they develop are even more influenced by live interaction. Check out the research below:

Social influences are important in speech learning. Infants learn more easily from interactions with human beings speaking another language than they do from audiovisual exposure to the same language material

Early language acquisition: cracking the speech code

Another opportunity we have in our town where we live is the local church that has services in English. They also have a children’s church in English as well and my son has fun there and gets a chance to speak and play with other native speakers. I checked in my hometown if there are any local Mandarin-speaking churches and there are! There are certainly churches in your neighborhood or other organizations where they probably take place in a language other than Chinese. 

Depending on where you live you can look for these kinds of opportunities to learn and practice as well. I also have fun going shopping in Tampa, Florida at a local Asian market and start speaking Chinese with the clerks. They are quite surprised when I can chat with them in their native language. The same happens at Chinese restaurants where you can practice your skills ordering some food. Of course, you can have fun with it and make practical use of learning a foreign language wherever you live.   

Foreign Language in Homeschool Boosts Academic Achievement  

aaron learning about lunch

There are numerous benefits to learning a 2nd or 3rd language in your homeschool. One that is also backed by research is that it can boost your child’s academic work. The studies show that standardized test scores had significant improvement in many of the studies. Check out the sources here, you might be surprised.   

Also another benefit of homeschooling a foreign language is that it might also boost your child’s attention span. Many parents report that losing focus and motivation can hinder their learning. The Cornell Language Lab reports:

Children who learn a second language can maintain attention despite outside stimuli better than children who know only one language

Cornell Chronicle, 2009

Depending on the situation in your family and the time you want to prepare will affect the outcomes of your child’s foreign language learning abilities. You do have many options especially if you start early in their life. And if either of the parents have a 2nd language ability, then you are at an advantage to implement and create the environment for learning the language. Not only will they have more skills when they are looking for a job, but they will also have the ability to converse with people of other cultures. This is an advantage when they travel, go to college or look for a career in another country. The benefits of learning a foreing language in your homeschool are well worth the time needed. 

Did you know that learning music in your homeschool may also have some similar benefits in boosting your child’s performance? Learn more about it in an article we have written about how to incorporate music into your homeschool routine.

Robert Dad

I'm Robert "Daddy" Macias the father of 3 wonderful kids. I am embarking on a new journey of homeschooling and green living. I realized my wife and mothers all over the world were doing this all by themselves. So I realized as a dad, I must jump into action!

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