Helping Your Expat Children to Learn a Foreign Language

Expat Kid Learn a Language

Expat Kid Learn a Language

Many kids have to learn a foreign language when relocating overseas. Although this is not easy, it is one of the best benefits your kids can gain out of the expatriate adventure.
Of course the benefit of knowing how to speak a second language is mostly for those who relocate to a country where the spoken language is different than the one spoken in their native country.
If this is your situation, you are most probably worried about your kids – How will they understand the teacher, classmates? How will they request to go to the washroom? And how will they feel sitting in a class without being able to understand a single word?
Indeed, this is not a very pleasant experience for a kid, and some of the most common questions parents ask are:

  • Is it recommended to teach my kids the foreign language before we relocate overseas?
  • How long will it take for my kid to learn a foreign language?
  • Which language to speak inside the house?

Before I answer those questions let’s try to distinguish Bilingualism from Second Language
Bilingualism – Two languages are been acquired simultaneously before the age of 3. One of the common myths about bilingualism is that learning 2 languages simultaneously might hurt the correct acquisition of each language. This myth was proven wrong – The acquisition of both languages is proper although the process of the acquisition itself might be slower.
Second Language – A second language is a new language that kids learn (after the age of 3) in addition to their native language. Kids usually acquire the second language in its natural environment and speak it on a daily basis. If your kids were successful with acquiring their native language then the odds are that their second language acquisition will be fine as well.

How Long Will It Take For Your Expat Kids
To Learn a Foreign Language?

This is a personal matter, and usually depends on various factors:

  • Need for communication – The more your kids will have a desire to communicate with their teachers and classmates the more effort they will make to learn a foreign language. However, in some schools you might find that there are teachers or other kids that speak your native language. While this help your kids to feel more comfortable it might slow down their second language acquisition.
  • Motivation – The more motivation your kids have to learn a foreign language the faster they will acquire it. Why? Because they will have a positive attitude and therefore they will invest time and effort to learn and speak the foreign language. But, if your kids are lacking motivation, due to anger about the move, anxiety, embarrassment, etc’., then the acquisition of the second language can be much slower.
  • Transparent Language Educational Environment – If schools at the target country have a supportive system and they manage special programs for kids who do not speak the local language (like ESL programs) then the acquisition of the second language will be much simpler.
  • Family support and encouragement – If your kids show interest to learn a foreign language with a private tutor before the overseas relocation then it can help to increase their self confidence. However, don’t force it on your kids; In any case most learning will be done overseas. At the target country it is important to encourage your kids to practice the language, to explain that mistakes are allowed, and to show empathy to their difficulties.

According to some researchers it takes from 6 months to 1.5 years and contains the following stages:

  • The kid is put in kindergarten/school and continues to speak his native language.
  • Linguistic shock – The kid doesn’t speak at all (not even his native language).,/li>

  • Telegraphic speech – The kid will use only 2-3 words to describe what they want i.e. – I go school
  • The kid speaks the local language fluently with his teacher and classmates.
  • Full acquisition of the second language.

It is important to remember that even if your kids are not speaking the local language, in most cases they understands it, but feel insecure to speak it. Your job is to encourage them and to provide supportive surrounding.
When they are ready – They will speak
There is a story about a five years old kid, lets call him Sam, who was living in the new country for 10 months but wouldn’t speak the local language. His birthday was approaching and his parents, who wanted to make him happy, were going to throw him a birthday party. They were planning to invite to the party only friends that speaks Sam’s native language.
Their intentions were good – Sam’s parents wanted him to be happy on his birthday, and thought that inviting to the party kids who speak the local language will make Sam feel uncomfortable.
But Sam wanted to celebrate his birthday with kids from his kindergarten; therefore he promised his parents that until his birthday he will speak the local language. And indeed on his birthday Sam returned from kindergarten speaking fluently the local language.

How To Encourage Your Expat Kids
to Use and Speak the Second Language?

Kindergarten Kids – Let them watch DVD’S of their favorite’s movie in the foreign language. Read them a story they like in the local language. Learn and sing songs in the new language.
Primary School Kids – Initiate play dates with kids from their class. Take them to after school activities. Accompany them to social gathering (only if they agree), and translate for them whatever they don’t understand.
Junior-High and High-School Kids – In many cases older kids are afraid to speak. They fear of making mistakes and being laughed at. So, request them to do tasks that will force them to speak the second language – Ask them to order a Pizza, call a Taxi etc’. Moreover, be their raw model – Dare to speak the foreign language and to make mistakes. This will give your kids the courage to speak.

What Language Should You Speak in The House?

Most professionals agree that you should speak only one language in the house, and usually it should be your native language.

  • It is important that the conversation between you and your kids will be real and authentic, as it satisfies your kids’ emotional needs. It is difficult to reach this level of authenticity and spontaneity when speaking a second language
  • It is important that your kids will learn to speak properly the second language. In many cases parents makes many mistakes while speaking the second language.
  • The house should be your kid’s shelter. They should come back to a cozy and comfortable place, where they can relax and have fun. Speaking the second language in your house will not help to reduce their anxiety level.

The opportunity to learn a foreign language when relocating overseas is a great benefit, for you and your kids. However it requires patience, calmness, and optimism.
Try to enjoy the process and have fun while you and your kids learn a foreign language.
** This article was written by Liat Mermelstein and Liat Harel-Shrist. Both are psychologists who have experience in Educational Psychology and in Organizational Psychology, and are assisting families and individuals to prepare for overseas relocation.