Tips for Teaching Foreign Languages to Kids

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The knowledge of a second language is a great gift to give to our children. Here’s one approach to teaching foreign languages to kids.

About 25 years ago this month, I walked into my new high school to register for my freshman classes. I carried a heavy burden — at least for a suburban ninth grade girl with big hair in the late 80’s.

My dad had insisted that I enroll in Spanish.

Of course, that made sense. We lived in Southern California. Knowing Spanish would be a huge plus in life and in business.

But, alas, I was not pleased to be practical. I wanted to learn French! I had no good reason for it, except that I had been infatuated with the idea of learning French since I was about five years old.

Imagine my joy when all the Spanish classes were full. I did a happy dance right there in front of Madame Stephenson and Senor Madrid. One was pleased and one was perplexed, I’m sure.

I ended up taking French classes for the next eight years as well as living in Bordeaux, France during my junior year in college. And eventually, I became the one teaching those gawky freshman la langue francaise.

Despite my great love of French, I’ve remembered that moment at high school registration and allowed my own children to choose what they want to learn — to a point.

So far, I’ve had one child begin high school coursework. After dabbling in Latin, Spanish, and French, he chose Latin as his official foreign language for high school.

This year I’m enforcing parental will and including French across the grade levels. As you may remember, we’re dreaming a big dream of taking all the kids to France in 2014 in honor of our 20th wedding anniversary. We’re doing several things to prepare for this European vacation of a lifetime.

Teaching (and learning) a foreign language can seem daunting. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned over the last few years decades.

1. Desire matters.

I believe that my own interest in learning French was extremely critical to my actually learning the language. A college professor during my sophomore year told me that I had no business in the French department. My language skills were atrocious — how could I ever major in French literature?

If my desire had been lesser, I might have backed into a corner, licked my wounds, and quickly changed my major.

Instead, I fought to prove her wrong. A year later, I spoke and wrote French fluently — and could hold my own with my senior level French professors. Clearly, I didn’t have natural skill, but I had desire.

Interest in learning a language correlates to learning it.

2. A teacher’s enthusiasm matters.

My high school French teachers (I had three) all had a great love for the language and culture of France. It was infectious. Most of us in AP French continued on in the class thanks to the passion of our teacher.

I see that same dynamic at play in my son’s Latin class. Last year, thanks to the recommendation of Joy at FiveJs, we landed on Visual Latin. We bought the DVDs, but also outsourced my son’s instruction to an online class from the same instructor, Duane Thomas. That was a wonderful experience.

Outsourcing was a double blessing for us. Not only did it free up my time (and lift the guilt) so that I could work with the other kids, but it also provided my son with an outside influence, one who was passionate about his field and one who could give the perspective and feedback who didn’t share the same gene pool.

FishBoy15 did really well in the course and is set on continuing with Latin in the future, thanks in part to the class and the enthusiasm that Duane has for Latin. (And I’ll be honest, I don’t have that same passion for Latin, so he’s definitely the better one to be teaching it!)

A passionate teacher who enjoys what he does makes a huge difference in a student’s experience.

3. A mixture of language and culture matters.

All work and no play makes John a dull boy. If language study is merely lists of verbs to conjugate and vocabulary to memorize, a child will run out of desire pretty quickly. I think it helps to expose kids to the culture of the language as well as the language itself.

I well remember the French restaurants that Madame Stephenson took us to as well as the in-class feasts we had. We watched movies of French life and listened to her tales of her life in France.

My own experience of living in France had the biggest effect on my language skills, of course. My apartment had a TV, so I watched French programming. I had a wonderful French family take me under their wing. I ate, drank, and slept in French — eventually.

Living the culture helped the language sink in.

Our French Language Studies

This year while my eldest continues in Visual Latin, our entire family will be working on French in anticipation of taking Europe by storm. While I don’t expect fluency in the next two years, I’m hoping that the kids might be able to find a bathroom, ask for help, and answer a few questions. Who knows?

Here’s our plan for French learning this year. (Many of these ideas are borrowed heavily from Ann Kroeker’s DIY French Instruction.):

1. Regular independent practice and instruction via Rosetta Stone French 1.

We received a review copy of Rosetta Stone French 1This a new program for us, so I can’t give it a full review just yet. But it’s an independent computer learning system. Come back later today to learn more about the program as well as to enter a giveaway from Rosetta Stone.

2. Group instruction via an old school textbook.

Years ago I taught private French lessons. The high school textbook I used then (15 years ago) is the one we’ll be working from.

3. Language videos.

In high school, we watched The French in Action series. These are available for free. Yeah!

4. French songs for children.

I recently purchased a couple CDs with children’s songs in French, like this one. Many of these melodies are ones that FishBoy10 is learning in his piano lessons, so they are familiar. Eventually, we might all understand what the heck they are singing and maybe even sing along.

5. French movies and movies in French.

Yes, there’s a difference. There are movies that were made in French by French speakers and then there are American movies that are dubbed in French. We’ll be watching both this year.

That’s our plan for the year when it comes to foreign language instruction.

How does your family interact with other languages and cultures?

Disclosure: This post does include affiliate links. If you make a purchase through a link, I might be paid a small amount in way of advertising or referral fees. However, these are resources that I really am using and would tell you about anyway.

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  1. Sounds like a great plan! We do a wide variety of things to learn our two foreign languages, French and Dutch.

    With French, we use a lot of textbooks and curriculum products; with Dutch we use a lot of story books. Here’s how we do Dutch:

    I can think of only two things you might want to tweak:
    1.Read French stories together. AMSCO has good beginner novels with study guides, and there are all sorts of cute picture books for everyone (some I have reviewed on my blog-just check the foreign language tag)
    2. recognize that little ones learn better by immersion while older ones really need to have a grasp on rules and vocabulary lists to learn at optimum capacity. Your highschooler will need an entirely different focus than your little one.

    Enjoy the journey. You’ve got a big advantage–that trip coming up. That is such a motivator!

    1. You are absolutely right! My littles are definitely going to engage in a different way than my high schooler. Thanks for articulating that so well!

  2. Great ideas! I would love to teach my son another language. He has a friend who speaks Spanish and has already picked up a couple words here and there like “aqua” and “avion”. It’s amazing how quickly they learn.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this too! We hope to live in Latin America one day and we need our kiddo to be ready for that. So far, we have not done much except watch a little Diego and Dora, use some Spanish (though the kiddo laughs and tells me to speak English), and we’ve recently started attending a Spanish Meet-Up group. We’ll be looking for more fun ways for all of us to improve our Spanish over the next few months, so I’m looking forward to seeing what others are doing.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing the french resources in your blog post. I have been looking for some that we can use at home with our 6 year old son. He goes to an all french school, but because he has developmental delays, the school has been trying to convince us to remove him into an English school. We really want this opportunity for our son, so we keep resisting. We are a little worried about grade one because the expectations are so much higher so any help with resources we can use at home to keep him engrossed in the language are appreciated.


  5. We are starting Rosetta Stone Home school edition of Spanish and are excited to start using it. Considering he wants to go into law enforcement and we live in a christian university town with a lot of opportunity to use it (and friends and college students fluent to help) I told him get through it and he can pick whatever language after that (I ironically given your post–his preference is French).

    We found with spending 2 weeks in China that having those basic phrases down are a lifesaver. The locals also seemed to be quite pleased to see you at least try to speak their language (especially when they try to chat with the kids–funny).

  6. We are adding German to our homeschool curriculum this year. We have family in Switzerland and they spent a few weeks with us this summer and my oldest is now very motivated to learn German. We are mulling the idea of a big vacation to Switzerland in a few years, so I figure it can’t hurt to give everyone the basics. I recently found out that our local library subscribes to Mango Languages, so the patrons can use the service for FREE! I’ve done a few lessons myself and was very pleased with the program. Also, Babbel is a great free app that we’ve found that covers a lot of basic vocabulary, greetings, etc. My little kids are even into it because then they get to use mama’s phone;-)

  7. My husband is Russian, so the boys have been exposed to the Russian language since they were very young, but just enough to know a few words still. I somehow feel like I failed in teaching it well enough to them. There is not many good programs for Russian it seems like out there. We attend church where they hear it weekly, but other than practicing a few words every week, we lack a good curriculum for it. The culture can be fascinating and they have that down, which is vital!

  8. What French movies do you recommend? I studied French in college, and the french movies I saw were NOT kid-friendly. I’d love to hear your input…I want to start my kids on French hopefully this year or next.

    1. I will let you know when I find some! LOL. I know exactly what you mean.

  9. Looks like you have something good going on. I have not done much with RS so can’t really speak for that. I’ll be curious to see how you like it!

    The French in Action videos are great. I used to teach adults for Michelin and we used those. Your kids will also get a kick out of how dated they are. 🙂 The reason these are good is because it is in real life, conversational context. Always the best way to learn.

    For little children, my kids have been learning a lot from Muzzy.

    I will say that nothing beats a good, live French speaker. If you have one in your area, it would be worth checking in even if for only an occasional tutoring session.

    1. I remember looking for an affordable set of Muzzy when my oldest was a toddler. We never ended up getting it. Did you find a good price?

      1. No, ours was given to us by someone whose kids were beyond it. Really, my kids could use their Level II, but I can’t afford it… Very pricey.

  10. Did you use an foreign language instructional dvds for toddlers? Or should I just wait until she’s older and in (home) school?

    1. We have a couple software programs that a couple kids used at preschool, but I don’t have much success/experience with DVDs.

      1. Are the software programs ones you really like or just okay?
        Thanks for your response!

        1. They’re just okay which is why I didn’t include them in this post. 😉

  11. These are great resources! In college, I wrote a thesis paper about teaching foreign languages young, but I haven’t been great about actually doing it with my own children. Thanks for the suggestions and inspiration… I’m going to look for similar resources for Spanish, and you reminded me that I should get my Spanish 1 book from middle school! It looks just like your French textbook :).

    So far, the best ways I’ve found to teach my preschooler Spanish are through singing songs in Spanish and through reading picture books to her in both Spanish and English (we have a few books with both languages).

  12. Sounds great! I have a video suggestion for kids – check out “TeleFrancais” on YouTube.
    Love it!
    I remember watching it back in JrHigh when I was learning French – my 2 kids (7&9) love it too.
    🙂 Erin

  13. As an elementary public school French teacher in Ontario, Canada, I appreciated what you had to say about (student) desire, (teacher) enthisiasm, and the inclusion of cultural components… I am a big fan of French food, par exemple! When it comes to the incorporation of new vocabulary and languages structures into the active minds and bodies of my students, I have found the music of two Canadian musician/educators to be really helpful (and lots of fun). They are known as Jacquot ( and Étienne ( We are just hours away from 2014, so your ‘voyage en Europe’ must be drawing ever closer: Bon voyage et amusez-vous bien!

  14. Hello, I am Italian and trying to teach English to my daughter of 2 years old.We have a mother toungue baby sitter 2 hours a weeek… to short! Do you have some advices about English songs or books to let her hear?or something else which shall be good?

  15. Is there anything to be said for live instruction? I know I’m biased because I own a live language instruction program and feel the benefits to that are staggering. Many of you are talking about online programs and DVDS, which is better than nothing. We just know that’s know how most children learn best and retain information. I would encourage everyone to look for live instruction and learning through active play for the best results and retention. You’d be surprised what programs are out there in your community. I don’t want to sound like im poo-pooing what everyone is doing, I just wanted to say good job doing this and encourage you to look into live instruction and a hands on curriculum. I am passionate about language learning and it’s benefits so I salute you ladies for diving into it with your children!