That’s the case even if they’re in their teens. When they’re younger, it can seem easier to introduce languages to them, whether that’s just through talking to them, or through introducing a new toy that ‘speaks’ only in the target language. But there’s a great deal you can do to help and support older children in learning languages that goes beyond practising verb endings with them or helping them with their homework.
In this article, we’ve taken a look at how you can help your teenage child learn English in fun, low-stress ways. We’ve focused on tips that don’t make it feel like you’re pressuring them to succeed, which is particularly counterproductive when learning a language, where confidence and a lack of self-consciousness can make a big difference to progress. While we’ve focused primarily on older children, there are tips here that you may find useful for younger children as well – or even for adult learning.
1. Get them English versions of their favourite books
If reading in English is something your child sees as a chore, an easy way to make it more fun for them is to get them their favourite books in English. A remarkable number of popular favourites have been translated, and it may well be that their favourite book was actually written in English originally.
Reading their favourites in English doesn’t just mean that they’re going to be more interested in the story; it also makes the act of reading in a foreign language much easier. It means that if there’s some vocabulary that they don’t understand, they won’t need to keep running for the dictionary – they’ll be more easily able to work it out from context. Reading a book in a foreign language can be frustrating, especially if a misunderstanding leads you to lose the thread of the plot, but when it’s a book that you already know well, it becomes a lot more painless. It’s even better if they then get hooked on reading a series that was originally in English – reading in a foreign language might seem like a reasonable exchange for getting to read the book before it appears in translation.
2. Learn a language alongside them
If you’re reading this article, chances are your own English is already pretty good, and trying to improve it alongside your child might end up being disheartening rather than encouraging. But it can be helpful to learn a different language, so that’s you’re learning at the same rate – or your child ends up out-pacing you, which can be gratifying for them. You can compare the vocabulary and structure of the different languages that you’re learning, set each other challenges and generally turn the process of language-learning into a fun and slightly competitive activity, rather than a chore.
There’s nothing that will pile on the pressure like saying that you’re learning another language in order to support your child, though, so keep that to yourself. This tip is best followed if learning another language is something that you were planning on doing anyway, with learning alongside your child being the thing that spurs you into action. Other European languages such as German, French, Dutch and Spanish are likely to be particularly complementary choices, and easier for an English speaker to pick up.
3. Set technology, such as games consoles, to English
Admittedly, following this tip is a good way to ensure that your child’s English-language vocabulary leans more towards ‘level up’ and ‘game over’ than the kind of thing that might be useful in their future career, but any practice is good practice, and switching technology into English is a low-pressure way to surround your child with the language. It may well be that some items of technology default to English anyway, so you won’t have to put much effort into changing them.
If your child isn’t a big gamer, other ideas include social media accounts like Facebook or even their own mobile phone, if they’re confident enough that they’ll still be able to understand anything. The biggest commitment would be switching over something like a laptop, but unless they’re already familiar with specialist terms in English, that can be more of a challenge.
4. Don’t worry too much about their mistakes
The best way to make your child never want to speak English again is to tell them every mistake that they make. As we’ve already noted, self-consciousness is fatal to learning languages, and constantly watching themselves for minor mistakes is a great way to make them feel deeply self-conscious. After all, while the ultimate goal might be flawless, fluent English, there aren’t many native speakers whose English is completely with mistakes; it’s better to prioritise your child being able to communicate confidently and fluently, rather than being able to say a much smaller range of things with no errors.
So what should you do if there’s a big mistake that they keep making? One approach – which you should agree with them in advance – is to pick up on one mistake every week. This helps them improve without giving the impression that they’re making so many mistakes they should just give up.
5. Don’t be afraid to mix English with their first language
If you’re trying to get a baby to grow up bilingual, it’s a good idea to avoid mixing two languages; it’s even a good idea to ensure that one person only speaks one language to them, while another speaks the other. But by the time we’re teenagers, we’re not so easily confused. Yes, blending two new languages is a very bad idea that can only lead to confusion, but they’re not going to struggle to differentiate their own native language and English at this stage.
This matters because sometimes, blending languages together can be a lot of fun and can make learning them easier. Speaking ‘franglais’ is a popular occupation for British schoolchildren, but even though les sentences comme cette one may sound ridicule, that’s a low-effort way to practise vocabulary and still convey your meaning if there are some things you don’t know how to say in the target language.
6. Watch English-language TV and films with them
Watching films and TV in English is a great way to learn while also enjoying yourself, and that applies especially to teenagers. If their English isn’t yet good enough to follow the plot, you could watch things in English, but with subtitles in your native language. Once that’s too easy, switch the subtitles into English as well – which gives your child the opportunity to figure out what’s being said twice over. And once that’s too easy, lose the subtitles altogether. Buying films and TV shows on TV should make all of this quite straightforward, especially if they’ve been dubbed from English in the first place.
Remember that enjoying themselves while surrounded with English is the priority; if they’re having to struggle to understand what’s going on, it defeats the point. As with books, choosing their favourite films and shows can help, though it can also be disconcerting to hear a favourite actor suddenly speaking in an entirely different voice.
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