Google+ Authentic Parenting: Language Learning Through Contact

Friday, August 19, 2011

Language Learning Through Contact

This post was written as a submission to the Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism. Find out more about the carnival here. 

Children are amazing when it comes to languages. You put a small child next to another small child from another culture, who speaks another language they themselves don’t understand, and after about 15 minutes, they’ll end up understanding each other. Put these kids together regularly and yours will come home uttering words in a different language. Continue this relationship and they’ll retain this knowledge.

When I was a baby, we lived first in Greece, and then in Italy. My brother even went to kindergarten in Italy and spoke Italian fluently with his little toddler voice. We moved there when I was two and my brother was almost 5. He lost all his knowledge of Italian. However, both he and I have always been instinctively language savvy, ad when my brother decided to move to Mallorca for 9 months, he spoke fluent Spanish after a few months.
Safe this short total immersion, we did grow up in a very multilingual house. Even though we were brought up monolingual, with both parents speaking Dutch, we were in contact with so many French and English speakers, and heard conversations in these languages so often that even at the age of six, the both of us were fluent in both English, French and Dutch.

The best way children pick up a language is through immersion. If this is not possible, the second best is to be in contact regularly with the language.
We can achieve this by using media and books, partly, but the best learning opportunity is to be presented with real conversation in that second (third...) language.

How can you assure this contact when you live in a monolingual family?

  • seek friends with whom you as a parent speak in a different language.
  • seek friends with children who speak another language as a family
  • Travel! Travel and expatriation are the best ways to immerse oneself in another culture and another language. Of course I am not talking about the kind of organized travel where you have a guide in your own language, but self guided travel, where you have to struggle to explain yourself.
  • Find hubs of foreign language speakers in your surroundings. You can find them through community centers or language schools. Probably some of them would be delighted to have the double exchange of language learning



  1. It really is important to find opportunities to communicate, not just listen/read, I completely agree.

    Impressed by your language skills!

  2. i'm so impressed that you learned english and french just because you were surrounded by people who spoke those languages!!! did your parents speak only dutch to you? what a rich heritage your parents passed on to you, exposing you to so many languages and cultures!!! i think you really are language savvy when you suggest learning a foreign language by traveling in a country that forces you to explain things in a language not your own!!! i don't know a lot of people who can do that, but there are some that are gifted!! great post! maria

  3. Very helpful hints! I know we need more contact with English speakers here, thanks for the reminder!

  4. My parents did only speak Dutch at home. We had a lot of foreign visitors at the house and went to France for three weeks each year. We also watched most movies (except disney) in their original language.
    Having some knowledge of these three languages is quite normal in Belgium, as we have a very feable language ourselves and are swamped by English language culture, you are bound to pick up something.


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