Growing up, I had a lot of foreign language influences in my life. My mother earned her Liberal Arts degree in French and Spanish (double major- go mom!), and I took advanced Spanish classes during my middle school and high school years. As a music major and member of several different choirs, I learned a bit of German, Latin and Italian too. Of course, I’m no expert in any of these languages, but I was exposed to them during my younger years, and I learned to appreciate different cultures as a result.
Now, I’m married to a Hungarian and trying to learn yet another foreign language. I’ve picked up bits and pieces, but my three year old probably knows more than I do! That’s because we’re doing what we can to raise him bilingual. It’s so awesome to see him embrace both his American and Hungarian heritage, and I’ve learned a few tips for raising a bilingual child along the way. I hope you’ll find these helpful.
1. Let One Parent Lead
In our house, only my husband speaks Hungarian fluently, so obviously I can’t contribute to teaching our son the language through conversation. But what I’ve found is that it’s easier to just let one parent do it. If both parents speak to the children in two different languages, it isn’t as easy to distinguish between the two. But if mommy only speaks English and daddy only speaks Hungarian, it’s easier to differentiate and thus absorb the two languages separately. While my husband does speak to our son in both English and Hungarian, he’s the only one of us to do that. Luckily I’m learning the language with my son, so that’s pretty cool!
2. Turn On Foreign Language Programs
I know there’s some debate about how much screen time is good for kids. And I’m not here to tell you what I think about that. I can say, however, that exposing your child to shows that are not in English is a great way to help them learn another language. My son has watched a few children’s programs in Hungarian and enjoys them just as much as the ones in English. These shows reiterate common Hungarian words for him, and even if he doesn’t understand what the words mean yet, he learns to connect the dots later on.
3. Listen To Cultural Music
Even though I have no idea what they’re singing about, I sometimes put on a children’s CD of Hungarian songs for my son. And I’ve even memorized some of the words myself! Kids enjoy music because of the beats and the melodies, so listening to one that is in another language doesn’t affect my son at all. In fact, he often asks to listen to the Hungarian CD again, once it’s played through all of the songs! If the language you’re teaching your child is from a culture that has its own instrument(s), music is a fantastic way to teach your child about those too.
4. Read Foreign Language Books
One of the best ways to help your children digest a new language is by reading books to them in that language. When they can connect words they hear with what those words look like, they learn the language much faster. I can’t read to my son in Hungarian, but daddy can. This is a lovely way for my son and husband to bond!
5. Introduce Cultural Foods
It wasn’t until I got married that I learned why paprika exists. (Apparently it goes on everything. Even goulash, which I also had never tried until I met my husband.) Now, I love trying Hungarian foods! My mother-in-law will often send us different Hungarian treats for Christmas, and it’s great that my children get to experience a different culture right at home. Kids are picky eaters, but if you encourage them to try foods that they can culturally identify with, they might be more inclined to give them a chance.
6. Ask Lots Of Questions
Just like anything else, children need repetition in order to soak up a new language. Whenever you have the chance, ask your children questions about the language you are trying to teach. If my son and I are playing outside and he starts counting something, I’ll ask him to count again in Hungarian, like daddy taught him. And my husband often reviews common Hungarian words with him to make sure he’s grasped them all. You can use anything to practice the language. The key is to keep your child engaged as much as possible.
7. Visit Your Home Country
We haven’t yet had the chance to take our children to Hungary (I have yet to visit myself), but I’m positive that being saturated with a certain culture is the absolute best way to make it part of your life. If you’re surrounded by people speaking the language, and living the lifestyle, you’re going to pick up on that way of life in no time. I know this to be true because my husband has acclimated himself outstandingly to America. So, if you’re able to take the kids to the place where their second language is derived from, go for it!