Teaching Children a Non-native Language

Living in the Capital of our beloved country Czech Republic, we hear the languages of the world every day. Whether on a tram, a metro or in the park, a day doesn’t go by when we can’t hear neighbors chatting away in their native language. And we all wonder how we can speak different languages and also teach our kids. Teaching a non-native language can be hard for parents and kids, but there are ways to make the journey easy.

This month we spoke to Petra Vojtová and Ondřej Vojta who are Czech parents of two lovely kids Mariana (4 years) and Žofie (8 months). Petra and Ondřej are teaching their daughters English as a second language at home because they feel it is a lingua franca.

Why do you want your child to learn another language?
Ondřej and I are both Czech and we speak Czech at home. Being in Prague, I’m surrounded by an international community of friends. Most of our friends now have kids, and they automatically speak two languages because of their bilingual environment. I felt that my child was missing out on that. And early on, I was a little bit bored at home taking care of my little one, so I thought adding another language would be a fun challenge and a nice change. I bought some books on bilingualism, searched the internet, and put together a combination of things that worked out best for us.

How do you manage to make English a part of your daughters’ everyday life in a way that feels natural?
There are so many ways you can do it. Some people have bilingual nannies or a bilingual kindergarten where kids can learn another language.

In our home, I started with English songs when Mariana was still tiny. Songs are great for the very first contact with a new language as children love the melodies. But songs only go so far when you want your child to learn how to communicate in the language.

Along with songs, I started focusing on nursery rhymes. If you use rhymes that are based on movement, children love them and are easily motivated to repeat them. Like when we would go outside, I would recite the Cobbler, cobbler mend my shoe** rhyme when putting shoes on. Once she got the rhyme, she would repeat it when putting on her shoes! From there I was able to work around the rhyme, using simple sentences and questions like Where are your shoes? And she would point to them, as she already understood the question naturally.

Reading to her in English was a huge step. In the beginning, she refused it quite radically, so I had to make reading in English a fun activity. I bought a lot of second-hand books that were interactive, touch-feel books, lift-the-flap books, books with sounds, and so on. Brown Box Books has been a great resource for me. I also put a lot of effort into reading to her by making different voices, playing with intonation and gestures.

The best thing I did was buying a puppet. We named the puppet Fred, and he would come for a visit every day for 10 minutes or so and play with her. He spoke in English, and they would have wonderful conversations. Then Fred would go away and come back the next day. And she looked forward to his visit. She has progressed quite well and can have short conversations in English now!

Can you give some tips to parents who want to teach a non-native language to their child?
It’s best when both parents and children enjoy the process of learning the new language. Also, it is important to make sure that you have a steady supply of resources to go with the learning process.
When the child is getting proficient in the second language, you can try having a language day at home. Just choose a day of the week when your family is going to speak only in that language.
Adjust the conversation to your level of knowledge – if you don’t know an important word, look it up in a dictionary.
The other thing that parents should do is to find a way to overcome their own challenges while learning a language. For instance, although I speak English, I didn’t know many English words or expressions of adoration. So, I asked in various English-speaking groups online about this and people gave me tips on what they use in their bilingual homes, like munchkin or pumpkin!

Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe.
Get it done by half-past two.
Half past two is much too late.
Get it done by half-past eight.
Stitch it up and stitch it down.
And I’ll give you half a crown.

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