Pragmatic Mom

January 2, 2010

Introducing Foreign Languages to Your Kids (Spanish and Mandarin Chinese)

I  find that learning a foreign language is very similar to dieting.  Changing my family’s lifestyle was key to successfully incorporating foreign language into my children’s hearts and minds.  Like dieting, crash diets (a.k.a. immersion) is wonderful in jump-starting foreign language acquisition however, without proper maintainance, it’s back to square one.  Again like dieting, there are times when I notice that great strides are being made, but there are also discouraging plateaus in which it seems like my children seem to be forgetting large chucks of what they used to know.  Fear not, just like the tortoise and the hare, perseverance will eventually win the race.

For my kids, I introduced Spanish very early in their lives.  We don’t speak a foreign language at home, so I started by creating  an after-school Spanish class at my first preschool by hiring an outside company to teach a class after school.  Then I found this great tutor from Berklee School of Music who was a native speaker and taught part-time .  My tutor who came to my house was much easier than recruiting a class full of kids!  Alas, my tutor didn’t want to commute to the suburbs when we moved.  My neighbor had spent years in Mexico and had a tutor which I promptly hired.  But, she was not confortable teaching small children and suddenly went AWOL.  Finally, we found a great tutor and have been with her for years and she’s become part of our family.  Yet, after many years of Spanish, I can’t say that my kids chatter amongst themselves in Spanish.  I have to coerce them to speak to the waiter at a Mexican restaurant and nudge them at the checkout line at the grocery store.  Still, the other night, the kids thought it would be fun to test their dad on his Spanish knowledge.  (He has never studied Spanish but knows a lot of words from growing up in California, and sadly, he is the only one in our family who can roll his r’s).  So, they fired off one word after another asking him to say it in Spanish and triumphantly correcting him.  It’s a start, I suppose.

Because we don’t speak a foreign language at home, I set modest goals for my children and my tutors:  focus on their accent.  They started so young (my oldest at 3, my middle at 1 and my youngest at birth) and have a native speaker that they are capable of acquiring a decent accent.  Their tutor speaks only Spanish to them, and only recently has grammar been introduced.

To increase their exposure to Spanish since their lesson is just once a week, I found a useful trick.  I only play DVDs in the car in a foreign language.  I figure that they watch plenty of TV at home, so when I got a new car with a built-in DVD player, I only stocked the car with foreign language DVDs.  Given the choice of no screen time, my kids usually opt for Plaza Sesamo which they don’t consider to be babyish because there is no Elmo.  I also found a great 3 DVD series of Spanish Language instruction for kids called Hola Amigos.  My youngest will request it.  We tried other methods;  Muzzy was a brain-overload.  It was entertaining for about 10 viewings but they didn’t seem to get anything out of it because there is just too much information.  But in order to absorb it, they would need to watch it a hundred more times but after 10 times they are sick of the storyline.   I noticed it’s now $24 on Amazon.  I think I paid close to $200.  For $24, I would say it’s worth it, but not for a penny more.

In terms of a class versus a tutor, I have to say that we have always had more success with a tutor AND we have even more success when each kid goes separately.  It’s more expensive that way, but it works better for us because my kids learn at different rates.  We had the same experience with Chinese; each of my kids has a separate turn with their tutor.  We tried to combine the two girls because they had been at the same Chineese school class for three years, but it just didn’t work.  The younger one got frustrated and was miserable.  Once they all had their own slots, they started to enjoy Chinese.  Imagine that!  They used to say that their favorite part of Chinese class was when they were picked up!  One day, when my children are world travelers, I have this fantasy that my kids will tell me how happy they are that they were forced to learn Spanish and Chinese when they were young.  I’ll keep you posted on that one when it happens!

These are the language DVDS that have worked for us.  If you are interested in purchasing them, click on the image to buy at Amazon.com.

Plaza Sesamo series.  You can also check out at your local library, rent at Netflix, or DVR .  Other children’s TV shows are too advanced for beginners but these are perfect for beginners!

My kids actually enjoy this language DVD series:  Hola Amigos. The lessons are geared towards children and are the perfect length.


This was also a good DVD that my son loved when he was about 2 to 4 years old.  The DVD has familiar songs that captivate small children.  You can set it to play in Spanish with English subtitles.  The English is for the adult, but music is a great way to get small children to hear Spanish.  Because they know all the songs in English, I have a feeling they comprehend the Spanish is a magical, osmosis kind of way.

We also found that playing board games in Spanish was a fun way to practice Spanish.

My kids don’t play this DS game ($24.98) a ton, but my oldest said it was fun and she plays it on her own.

Zingo is a good one for beginners, preschool or elementary school age.

I bought a few of these DVDs, The Standard Deviants,  and they will be perfect for middle school students who study grammar.  They are fun to watch but too advanced for beginners or little kids.

I also tried out Professor Toto Spanish Language Kit.  At $199.00, it’s pricey and I don’t think it’s worth the full amount.  My youngest liked the vocabulary builder DVD that just has a bunch of nouns and verbs put into form sentences.  I’d recommend borrowing it from a friend or buying it used on ebay, but there are other DVDs are just as effective and much less expensive.  This was a little dry for my older two.

I know this sounds insane, but once my kids were on their way with Spanish, I figured that if I didn’t start Chinese soon, they’d have no hope in hell of getting the accent down.  My kids are a quarter Chinese so everyone always asks me why I started them in Spanish rather than an Asian language.  My answer is that Spanish is much easier than Chinese and easier to practice in the real world.  My oldest started Chinese at 5, my middle (off and on because she’d strike) at 3, and my youngest at around 4.  They actually like learning Chinese now because they love their tutor.  Sometimes it takes a few iterations to get it right, but it’s worth it!

I found these DVDs to be very useful.  The PBS show Ni Hao Kailan also has a little Chinese language built into each show.

We also have these DVDs.  My son likes them but the animation is very basic.  It was hard to find Mandarin Chinese DVDs for kids; if I had access to Sesame Street in Chinese I would not have purchased these but I use these to mix it up.

Here’s a DS game that we have not tried yet, but we plan to.  My kids occasionally play the Spanish version.

I have not tried Rosetta Stone but I’ve heard great things about it for adults who want to learn a foreign language but at $299 it’s pricey.  Here’s an article on Rosetta Stone, free online learning and iphone apps from CNN.com:  http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/10/23/learn.language.online/index.html

 

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