How to Make Your Child Hate Learning a Foreign Language

Want to hate learning a foreign language? Try cramming a textbook into your head. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, En L’An 2000.

As parents, our motivation for wanting our kids to learn a foreign language is justified. Research shows it improves brain functioning, leads to higher scores on standardized tests, builds empathy, deepens multi-cultural understanding and improves employment opportunities. Not to mention, if your family speaks another language, having your children learn the language can deepen family connections.

The challenge for parents is that in our enthusiasm for language learning, we might inadvertently tiger-mom (or dad) our way into making kids hate the process – and what a missed opportunity that would be!

Let’s face it. Learning a foreign language is going to take years, and if a child loses their motivation, the effort is going to be more difficult to sustain. On the other hand, help your child develop a love of the language and an intrinsic motivation to learn and you’re golden. How can you help your child lose that motivation and hate language learning? Here are a few ways:

1. Make them order in restaurants.

When kids are little, they are often quite shy about speaking to strange adults… it’s part of their survival instinct.  While parents often get a rush of pride from having their little one speak in a foreign language with others, parents need to consider it from their child’s perspective. If your 6-year old is really shy about ordering in a restaurant in English, chances are she won’t feel better about doing it in a language she is just learning. So invite her to do it, but don’t force it, or it can make learning the language feel like a liability.

Note: I have noticed that if I want to encourage my kids to order in Mandarin at a restaurant I’ll do it myself– despite my very basic vocabulary. I’m not sure whether they are trying to save me or themselves from embarrassment, but they usually take over pretty quickly.

2. Correct them all the time.

Correcting grammar with red pen on paper.
Communicating meaning in language learning is more important than perfect grammar.

Experienced language teachers will tell you that for language learners, communicating meaning is more important than perfect grammar or pronunciation – which will come in time. That’s why elementary teachers now hold back on using a red pen to highlight every mistake a child makes writing a story. They know it It’s more important for their students to get the ideas out first – and to develop a love of writing, than to limit themselves to saying or writing only what they know perfectly. Mistakes when learning a language are to be encouraged – because it proves your child is trying something she hasn’t already mastered.

That’s not to say corrections aren’t helpful – it’s just that there is a way to do them: by gently repeating something correctly, in a way that it doesn’t interfere with the child’s expression.

Did I correct my child every single time she said psghetti or egspecially? No, especially if she was in the middle of a great story. Does she now say spaghetti and especially correctly? Absolutely.

3. Start with grammar.

Father watching his son ride a bike.
You wouldn’t teach a child to ride a bike by lecturing on the laws of physics.

When’s the last time you saw someone explaining to a baby how English grammar works so he would talk sooner? Probably never. And for that matter, you wouldn’t dream of teaching a kid to ride a bike by starting with lectures on physics and acceleration; you would put him on a bike. For kids, skip the traditional rule-bound grammar lessons. Research has shown that they aren’t particularly helpful for young kids – and may even stunt kids’ expressiveness and increase frustration. When learning a language, it’s more important to help kids get their ideas out first.

Adults, on the other hand, have usually studied English grammar, and often seek a grammatical “lay of the land” to help them analyze and understand the differences with their first language. The trick as a parent is to recognize our learning approaches are different and not optimal for kids.

4. Use programs, apps and textbooks designed for adults.

There’s a plethora of software programs, apps and textbooks out there to help you learn a foreign language. Most of them are designed for adults – and that makes them inappropriate for kids. The fact is, kids and adults learn language differently, and their motivations are different. Any program a child uses should reflect that. Kids acquire language best organically, by association with a real-world thing or action. They start off with listening and speaking – just as babies do. And they’re most interested in talking about the things that are relevant in their lives – family, pets, toys, foods – not how to ask for the bill in a restaurant. They are motivated to learn because it’s fun, and because there are people they want to talk with.

Tired 8 years old boy doing his homework at the table.
Kids learn language differently, so the apps they use should reflect that.

On the other hand, adults usually have an explicit, extrinsic motivation for learning – possibly to prepare for a trip or to use the language at work, and that influences the topics they are most motivated to talk about. They often appreciate an overview of the linguistic landscape. They’ve developed memorization techniques, and often gravitate toward a “flash card” approach, that maps the new language onto their first language, rather than acquiring it through real world experience.

5. Learn without humans.

From the time we’re babies, humans are motivated to communicate – first through cries, then gestures, then words, because we want another human to do something – hold us, feed us, or play with us. Communication and humans are intrinsically linked – and when you take humans out of the language-learning equation you’re losing out on the instinctive biological motivation for kids to learn a language.

That’s not to say there aren’t apps and games that are great for practice…. But if the majority of your language learning time as a child is isolated from real human beings, you’re missing out, and you risk turning language learning into a chore.

Wanting to tell someone something is extremely motivating for learning a language, and when kids are motivated, they’ll seek out the words. Good teachers will want to hear about their student’s winning goal at the soccer game on the weekend, or the funny things their dog does, or how they really feel about spinach, knowing that the human connection will drive their desire to learn.

6. Force them to show off in front of relatives.

One of the reasons you might want your child to learn a foreign language is to be able to talk to family members.  And being able to speak the same language can deepen connections and understanding among families. It’s also a great way for kids to get practice. But there is a line between encouraging and forcing a child to speak. And many parents find that as their children get older and start attending school, it can be difficult to have them answer in the parent or grandparent’s language. While speaking with relatives some kids may feel they are being judged, and may be more uncomfortable expressing themselves, especially if their grammar gets nit-picked. Encourage your child, but don’t force them.

At PandaTree we believe in the importance of kids learning foreign languages and know that making learning fun and engaging is critical for sustaining long-term motivation. That’s why all our carefully hired tutors are great with kids. We often hear parents say that their child looks forward to their next PandaTree lesson because they can’t wait to talk to their tutor again. When kids are that motivated, language learning becomes a breeze.

There are plenty of ways to make kids hate learning, but with thoughtfulness and sensitivity parents can avoid the pitfalls and make it easier for their child to enjoy all the benefits of foreign language learning. Let’s save the tears for math.

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