Introduce Your Preschooler to a Second Language in Five Simple Steps!

So what do you do when your preschooler tells you he wants to learn German…and Italian, and Spanish, and French, and Polish, and Russian.

Well if you are me, you might panic a little.  We are an entirely English speaking household, with very minimal experience in speaking a second language.

How did we get to a place where my preschooler has an interest in speaking multiple languages?

First of all my preschooler really enjoys studying maps.  Part of it is his hyperlexia (see What is hyperlexia?); The other part of it is that maps are really fun!  And discovery and exploration of maps leads nicely into exploring the languages of the world.

So back to our initial question.  How do you introduce a preschooler to a second language?

Here are five simple steps to get you started:

1.  PICK A LANGUAGE

Motivation is important in this first step.  You can definitely introduce a second language to your preschooler, but it will be ten times better when they are invested in learning it.

For example, if you would like to expose your child to the French language, you might want to introduce them to French-speaking countries first.  What are the people like? What kind of food do they eat?  Where are these countries on a map?  Then proceed to introducing the language.

Here is my preschooler with a French flag he made from paper, tape, and a straw.

2.  GREET EACH OTHER

Learning how to greet each other is the second step in introducing your preschooler to a second language.  A greeting, such as “hello” or “how are you,” is a straightforward concept for little ones to understand.  Practice saying hello at home, as well as out and about.  What child doesn’t love to yell “Hallo!” and “Guten tag!” each time they pass someone in the store or when a parent arrives home from work.  Make it fun and silly, and it will stick with them!

3.  LABEL EVERYDAY ITEMS

Drawing from research-based practices used with teaching English Language Learners, we decided to continue our learning by simply labeling some everyday items around the house.

Our “Games” shelf.

A table and chair.

Step three is to put labels on objects around your house.  You want these items to be familiar words that your child sees and uses daily.  Some easy items to start with:

  • Toys
  • Furniture
  • Food items

Dont go overboard here.  Start with no more than twenty items.  When you are using the item, be sure to practice the new terms!  And believe me, even if they can’t read yet, they will start picking up on the words used in the labels, as long as you are referencing the new words as you interact with the items.

4.  CREATE POSTERS

Our preschooler loves numbers, so he was especially excited to learn numbers in a second language.  What does your child enjoy? Construction vehicles?  For the fourth step, create a poster of the Italian words for excavator, bulldozer, and trencher.  Farm animals?  Your poster could showcase cow, pig, and horse.  For added pizazz have your child add pictures (magazine clippings, printouts, etc) to accompany the words.  By sticking with your child’s favorite things, they will be more excited to learn and use their new words.  You want to customize the new vocabulary words specifically for your child!

5. (MIMIC) IMMERSION

Immersion is the most common (and possibly the best) way to learn a second language.  When you are thrown into an environment where you do not speak the language, you quickly have to learn it.

We are not heading out of our current contintent anytime soon, so we do our best at mimicking immersion.

First things first, head to the library and talk to the librarian about what books they have available in the children’s section.  We like the First Hundred Words series (Usborne Books).

I’ve seen these books in English, Russian, German, Chinese, Spanish, and French.  In terms of bilingual picture books for preschoolers, in the U.S. it is easiest to find English/Spanish books.  Again, talk to your librarian and see what they have available.  Authentic picture books are best!

In the final step, use your new words as much as you can!  Get the whole family involved.

  • Listen and sing a song in the language (Check out Mama Lisa’s World)
  • Describe your favorite things in the language at dinner
  • Count out candy in the language
  • Cook dinner together and describe your ingredients in the language
  • Create a pretend play scenario and have one of the characters be from that country
  • Do the laundry together and talk about the colors of the clothes in the language

In a few weeks, see how your preschooler is doing.  They may be eager to learn more vocabulary words or to learn phrases in their new language, or they may very well want to try a different language now.  Just go back to step one and begin your exploration again!  Use the five steps again and again as you introduce your preschooler to new languages, people, societies, and cultures.

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