7 Ways for children to learn new languages

Language is the doorway to culture. It opens up not only doors to a new home but also new hearts, new jobs, new hopes and new cities. Children in their primary years might not value languages much, however as an adult, we realize the value of language in our travels, traditions and even workplace.

Growing up in a Tamil household in Delhi, as a child I quickly understood that traditions and customs are a part of the non-verbal fabric of society. These are things that children of a uni-lingual may not pick up, until their preteen years or even adulthood.

Ways to learn new languages

Tip 1: Catch ’em young

The fastest way to pick up any language is frequent exposure. Research shows that children under the age of 12 pick up languages swiftly and easily.  So it is ideal to teach as many languages to children before the age of 12. Don’t worry, even if they mix it up, they’ll eventually figure their way around it.

Eg: I grew up speaking Tamil with my mom and grandparents, my dad spoke to us in Hindi and English and I now speak all  those languages.

Tip 2: Hold onto your mother tongue

My mother and grandparents ensured that they only spoke to the children in Tamil. So all my cousins still speak the language even though we never lived in Tamil Nadu. A lot of families let go of their mother tongue to ensure their children adjust to the society they are in, but what they don’t realize is that it’s not either/or situation. Children can assimilate as many languages (unlike adults) and it’s not even a hassle for them.

Eg: Syrian children in refugee camps speak as many as 6 languages.

Tip 3: Language Day

Let’s say you are proficient in French and so is your spouse. How do you pass that on? Pick a day of the week where you only converse in that language. From movies to YouTube videos to food that you make, everything can be French on Fridays so that your children not only speak that language but also get exposed to that culture.

Tip 4: Cartoons!

Growing up in a Tamil-Hindi household, my source of the English language was Cartoon Network! (we had Tom and Jerry and Powerpuff Girls) we regularly saw cartoons and our English improved tremendously, as we grew we naturally wanted to see English movies and the rest is history.

Tip 5: Read! Read! Read!

One of the best habits to inculcate in children is the habit of reading. Children don’t learn because you did something, they learn by emulating adults around them. So if the grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts all read and always take out time for reading (rare sight in the age of phones) then children will follow the same and before you know it, they’ll be addicted to reading for sure.

Reading improves vocabulary significantly, builds exposure to new ideas and thoughts and boosts imagination and creative ability in kids.

Tip 6: Travel

Bi-annual visits to your hometown or city/state of origin or other countries or tourist places will give ample language exposure to the children. The children they play with, the people they speak or what they watch on TV, everything will be in the native language of that place. So children not only get exposed  with high levels of information, they are also motivated to respond in the native tongue.

Tip 7: Music

You know how it’s easy to forget the name of new colleagues at work, or what you read for an exam a day before, but it’s interesting how you know the lyrics to a fun song you heard 10 years ago are still intact! That is the power of music. Those catchy tunes get coded deeply into your memory thanks to repetition and joy associated with it. Fun learning is the best way to learn and music can be an excellent teacher.

Written by

Karthik Hariharan

Bachelor of Engineering-Chemical Engineering (Manipal University)

Associate – Teach For India, Former Research Intern- Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Analyst- PWC

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