What Every Homeschooler Should Know About Foreign Languages… By the Time Her Child Turns 5

Guest post by Madame Barbara Starosciak

Adapted from her book Homeschoolers Need Foreign Language Too!


The brains of infants and small children are very moldable to language and new sounds.  So, theoretically, your child could learn as many languages as you spoke to them during their childhood. Psychologists tell us that at about age 9, the brain centers on its one mother tongue. From that point on it’s more difficult to introduce new sounds, vocabulary and patterns of speaking.

I’ve found that most children need to learn to read and write their mother tongue before adding a new syntax to avoid confusion. Some parents have noted that if one adds a second language too soon, the child experiences a delay in speaking, reading and writing his mother tongue.

Therefore, in early childhood it’s a good idea to keep the second language simple and just concentrate on nouns. Children like games… and the nouns in a new language can be introduced as a game. Young children don’t need long lessons. In fact, your explanations can be 1 minute for each year the child is old. A 6 year old can accept an explanation that takes 6 minutes but may lose interest after that. The lesson should be fun, colorful and perhaps put to music.

When I started my own children on French, I bought a large picture book where the nouns were set in colorful scenes. There were lots of nouns and fun pictures to describe.  I added a few simple verbs so that we could compose sentences.  Each daily lesson took the number of minutes corresponding to their age.

Flashcards with pictures are another fun activity. The point is to expose your child to another way of naming an object.  Young children will note and contrast the cultural differences in the pictures and this can lead to more explanations.  You can say, “Let’s look up why the girl is wearing such a pretty dress with flowers. Maybe it is for a festival?”

CDs contain traditional songs in different languages. Young children don’t need the translation. They might want to know that the song is about a cow or about a birthday party, but after that…..they just want to sing along! I put CDs on in the car for my children and we listened and sang on our way to the store.

If you start your child early, she will get used to the fact that there are many ways to name an object, to greet others and to ask for things.

Researching other cultures and traditions will open your child’s mind to the world and help them become a more accepting, compassionate person. This also offsets the fear that some teens feel when it is officially “time to learn a foreign language.”  In the end, the “foreign language” won’t seem so “foreign”!


Studying by Immersion

The immersion method is a popular concept but difficult to achieve. It is ideal for your child to learn the second language in the second language with no English. Your child will learn the vocabulary, grammar structures, pronunciation, and body gestures right from the start in the second language. This can be confusing and overwhelming to some children, but it is a proven way to learn a second language because it imitates how one learned their first language.

If you know of a native speaker and want to hire them to spend time with your child, they will train your child in good pronunciation. Bu you still need to provide daily practice.

Another possibility is for you to work on vocabulary and grammar in English and have a teacher supplement once a week.  Ask the teacher to spend most of the time in the second language.  Soon your child will associate greetings, numbers, colors, etc. in the second language with that person. In fact, if you meet them in the supermarket, your child might address them naturally in the second language!

Some homeschoolers get together and hire a teacher. I did this for several years. We actually met during lunch for a kind of French club. I had 5 girls around the age of 8. We went through a picture book, acted out the nouns, sang songs, and made posters. By the time the girls joined me, settled down, practiced a bit, gathered up their things and then left – a half hour had passed. But the real work happened at home when mom went over the vocabulary. She required that the student copy the spelling, listen to the CD and read the words aloud.  Over the year, we made progress and the girls developed wonderful accents.

Some universities host Immersion day camps for young students. It might be one day during the school year or a whole week during the summer. A search on-line shows that some camps offer the same thing as a sleep-away option. The students have a camp experience complete with nature hikes, songs around the camp fire, games and crafts – all in a foreign language!



My Favorite Years for Introducing a Second Language

The middle school years are my favorite for introducing a second language.  The pressure is not on yet to make the class “count for college.” Most students are already reading and writing in their first language, so you can build on that.

Middle schoolers find the world interesting and are curious about other customs and practices. They also like the idea of secret codes and secret messages. They enjoy learning a new language so that they can tell their friends something that no one else understands.  It is an ideal time to start a second language.

During the middle school years you can introduce verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. Each year, the student reviews and adds as his understanding increases.

It is rare to find a foreign language program for homeschoolers that covers grades K-12.  You may have to mix and match as your child grows in their language skills.

After picture books in elementary class, the middle school student wants more interaction.

A cartoon format is great for this age.  As they read the bubbles, they learn more dialogs and interchanges along with vocabulary. If the book comes with a CD or DVD, they can memorize the dialogs and act out the scenes. Middle school students are capable of some grammar explanation and practice. But it needs to be simple and to the point with regular structures. Save the “exceptions “ for high school.

Foreign language in middle school can be built around social studies. Incorporate the language of the country you are studying.  If you have chosen Spanish, each of your children could research a different country in South America. They could compare and contrast the cultures while using Spanish.

In a co-op setting, I assigned different French–speaking countries of Africa to my class and they looked up information to share. Each student made a poster with pictures of the history, climate and geography. As they presented their poster to the class, they used some French. This gave them useful experience in public speaking and the opportunity to share their knowledge.

We even found a child to sponsor in one of the African countries. My students wrote to him in French and he wrote back!

These are the years to take excursions that will supplement your learning of the culture. Are you teaching Japanese? Perhaps you could visit a Japanese shop and learn how they do flower arranging. Arabic? Have lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant. German? Make a Christmas craft with a German motif. Spanish? Take some Flamenco dancing lessons.

Maybe there are plays, movies or museums in your area that highlight the language you are learning. This is the time to participate! You‘ll find that the high school years are more squeezed for time. Plus, older teens sometimes consider themselves too sophisticated for these trips. Middle schoolers are ready to explore and try new things.


Foreign Languages Rife with Possibilities

Foreign language offers special developmental possibilities for students.

A younger child thinks in black and white. For instance, my family celebrates birthdays in a certain way with clowns and a party and it’s the only right way. The French celebrate with champagne and that’s weird.

An older teen can think through the differences and see a compromise or mix of the two ideas.

Younger children look for a one to one correspondence in translation, but older teens understand the ambiguity of idiomatic expressions.

One of the most important milestones of academic development in these teenage years is for your student to be able to make oral presentations. Once the teen does his research, analyzes it, synthesizes it and then presents it, he is on his way to good communication. Establishing eye contact and using feedback from the audience is part of this maturity. It’s an important skill for college or the work force. Giving presentations about or in the foreign language to family, co-op or class is good practice.

As teens mature, they become very self-conscious of their appearance and their behavior. Learning about another culture and learning to use another language eases them into the idea that different is good! Although they strive to look a certain way and fit in with a certain group, they can study the traditional dress of Spanish speakers in Ecuador or the burqa in Muslim countries. Suddenly what is popular in the United States doesn’t seem as important as having to wear a veil in public.

Studying languages and cultures gives the student more choices and an opportunity to discuss with the parent what is going on. Learning in Chinese to reverence the elder and to put family honor before their own desires may give the American pause as he determines his own values.

Many teens are curious about other religions. This is the perfect time to examine other beliefs and cultures.

Their foreign language involves holidays and religious festivals. As your student researches these events and learns the vocabulary, discuss the belief system with him. Notice how the religion has played out in the country and affected its history. This is a good time for the student to see that everyone worships something. How has this worship benefited the country and culture?

Teens want to spend time with friends, so why not work that into a foreign language class? Making tacos and speaking Spanish bonds a group of kids together. Inviting homeschooled friends over to celebrate La Chandeleur and make crêpes on Feburary 2nd is ideal for having fun and learning about French.

Language invites communication and people. The better your child speaks a foreign language, the more he’ll want to speak it. This gives you the opportunity to get his friends together and build fun around a learning activity. Or take a mission trip. Or be your interpreter on a family trip. The possibilities are nearly endless.


Check It Out!

Ready to read the rest of Madame Starosciak’s book on foreign language instruction for homeschoolers? Click here to get it now! She has so much wisdom to share, gathered over many years of teaching. Here’s what one European native had to say:

There is nothing like a grasp of a second language to promote good will and build bridges in our ever-shrinking world! It expands a young person’s view of the world, develops the skill of listening with discernment, and promotes sensitivity to other cultures. Being originally from Europe, I am very aware that the world is much larger than the borders of the USA; having my students learn a foreign language was a great way to promote that. Listening with discernment, and sensitivity to others who may have different opinions, tastes, values, and ways of doing things are skills that will always be useful from music appreciation to seeking to make a thoughtful contribution in today’s world.

~ Tricia Leitch, Michigan

Don’t miss out on this vast source of knowledge and wisdom in the area of learning foreign languages.

Or did today’s article convince you to get your students started studying a foreign language now rather than putting it off? Rosetta Stone offers respected and well-loved programs for foreign language learning, and their programs are designed to teach foreign languages using the same “immersion” method that your kids used to learn English. Check out their programs for French,German, and Hebrew today!


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