The one question my friends across the globe ask the most is ‘how can I get my kids to improve their English?’
As a native English speaker, a mum of two (almost) bilingual kids and language pedant, here are some tips to get you started:
- Foster the fun. Don’t enforce the language on a child. Let them love it their way. Encourage your child to love English and everything that goes with it. Depending on your kid’s age, dress up as characters from English novels as you read books aloud, celebrate American Thanksgiving, cook up a Scottish feast, learn about English speaking countries’ histories together. Expat Since Birth is a really great blog to get you started and an absolute must if you are serious about helping your child learn the lingo.
- Switch over to English. Change the television to English speaking channels, turn off the dubbing, rack up a playlist of English songs, treat the kids to English language magazines that they will want to read. I’m talking Teen Vogue, comics, computer gaming mags and so on. There is no such thing as English trash. A friend’s half Lebanese half Belgian five year old speaks better English than any foreign student I’ve met on my travels, and it’s all thanks to Dora the Explorer on YouTube.
- Dip, don’t dive. If your child is too young for a full on exchange programme, dip their toes into the culture with holidays in English speaking lands. Only when they are ready, build up to full on solo immersion.
- Exchange. If your child is old enough and willing, look for an exchange programme. Most schools offer these, but you should do your homework as an adult. How long has the exchange been running? What safety protocols are in place? Is it possible to chat to parents whose children have been on the programme? Do the children travel together as a class to another school or individually to a family? (Children may be reluctant to travel alone but in my experience this is the only way to really learn) Is it a reciprocal or one way programme, i.e. will you be welcoming a child into your home, and if so, what is expected of you as a family? Is it a profit making exchange programme ? (Often a family who ‘welcomes’ a child into their homes for the financial reward alone may not be the best candidate for a language tutor). Photo by Sydney Treasures Photography
- Separate them from the pack. If you really want your child to learn the lingo then make sure they have no native language option. My mother was delighted to send me to one of my uncle’s homes near Malaga to learn Spanish, but was less happy to find I’d been hanging out with fellow Brits, and even less happy when I returned home with a strong south London accent.
- Set an example but leave it to the professionals. Be sure to keep up your language training yourself and don’t be shy or scared to use it in public. Otherwise what hope do your children have? Having said that, personally I find it’s best, where possible, to keep the teaching to the experts. It is one thing to correct the occasional spelling mistake, it is another your own grammatical mistakes. In my case, my children benefit from the luxury of an English speaking mum and a Spanish speaking Dad, albeit both of us with the odd Spanglish mix up. However it’s the teachers who really know their stuff.
- Praise, don’t push. As a teen learning French I’d always be embarrassed when my Dad put me forward in a restaurant to order in French. I’d be even more embarrassed when the restaurant was actually Spanish. He always praised my linguistics skills however and never forced the language upon me, apart from when we once broke down in Germany and needed to find a garage urgently before sunset. Photo by tannazie
- Get help. Hire a native English speaking nanny. Or an au pair, a live in housekeeper, anyone with whom the children have to speak English on a daily basis. Keep it consistent however. There is little point employing a native English speaker one year if they’ll be gone with no replacement the next. If you’re looking for a fully trained, highly experienced live-in nanny, then trust me, from personal experience Norland is THE agency. If you’re prepared to do the vetting yourself and are happy with someone less qualified, then an au-pair is a great option too. In addition to the many online agencies, The Lady magazine advertises au-pairs, as well as butlers, domestic couples and live-in housekeepers.
- Be patient. Learning a language is an ongoing, lifelong, organic process so don’t expect overnight results. Equally, children learn in different ways and one child who fails in English at school could end up fully bilingual in later life. One friend’s daughter quit uni and ran off with a hot French guy. Be careful what you wish for.