28 April 2006

Teaching Foreign Languages

This topic comes up a lot on homeschooling boards. And, not surprisingly, I have my own opinions about this even though I've never taught a foreign language (although I've studied a number of languages myself). But here are a few things to consider when you're choosing a foreign language to teach your child.

Obviously, one of the best reasons for choosing a language is if you've studied it yourself. Even though there are lots of good language programs out there, it really helps if you know something about the language before.

What native speakers of other languages live around you? Are there any who would be willing to help your child practice? What about children who speak another language? Consistent practice with a native speaker makes a huge difference. It's better to learn a more obsure language well than being able to stumble through a few phrases in Spanish.

What are your child's specific interests? This applies more to high school students. International business? Chinese might be a good idea. World religions? Try Arabic. Eastern Europe? Maybe Russian would be a good option. French literature? French, of course.

Take the usefulness of the language into consideration. While lots of people speak Chinese, it is only influential in China and SE Asia. Spanish is an excellent choice in the Western Hemisphere, but not so much in the Eastern Hemisphere. French is good all over the world, but not as widespread as English. German is a relatively common third language.

And remember that there is no way to really predict what will truly be useful in 10-20 years. When I took Arabic 10 years ago, no one thought it was a useful language. They do now. It's better to stick with something that's useful now- you can be pretty sure it will still be useful then. But betting that, for example, Chinese will become more widespread could be a little riskier.

Spanish is always a good choice in the US. If there isn't a good reason for going with another language, do Spanish.

Last, but certainly not least (since I think this can be one of the most important factors), ask your child what language she wants to learn. You may think, for example, that Spanish is the best option, but if your child really wants to learn Polish, let her. So what if it's not as useful a language? If she is truly interested in that language, it's likely she'll find a way to make it useful.

Of course there are some languages that simply may be impossible to learn no matter the interest of your child. There are good resources in only a few languages and while it is certainly possible to wing it, it requires a lot more from the parent. Several language programs, like Rosetta Stone, do have some less commonly taught languages like Thai and Turkish though.

Do remember that any study of a foreign language that your child does probably won't translate into real-world ability unless they get extensive practice with native speakers. This is why I think picking a language your child is interested in is so important. Learning languages takes time and effort and interest can really help. If your child is really interested in the language, try to get her to a country where that language is spoken after she's studied it for a few years. She'll learn a lot, see that she still has a lot more to learn, and hopefully see that what she has learned so far is worthwhile.

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