“What’s the point of teaching your kids a foreign language if they will never become fluent?” I have heard this so many times from parents who think it’s a waste of time to teach their child a language unless they will they will be able to speak it fluently.
It hasn’t even crossed my mind that having my children learn another foreign language would be a waste of time, even if they don’t, or never will, speak it proficiently.
My children who are almost 3 and 5 are bilingual. We live in Italy, and they speak English and Italian to a native level for their ages. They have been learning Spanish for the past year and a half, spending a few afternoons a week with a native Spanish speaker. Neither my husband nor I speak Spanish very well. My eldest can hold a good conversation, though, while my little one understands a lot and can speak the basics.
We also have fun learning bits and pieces from other languages. Before having children, I lived in many other countries and learned the basics of a few different languages. Sometimes I teach my kids a few words, and they love it.
We recently introduced Mandarin, and hope that the language will spark interest in my children on a more serious note. Neither my husband nor I speak Mandarin, but we hope to learn a little along with our kids.
Why? Well, for many reasons. There are so many benefits of knowing how to speak another language, other than knowing how to speak them fluently.
1. Languages help children develop appreciation for other cultures
We love learning about the world. When we are looking at our world globe together, my son will often point to a country and ask me what language they speak there. He is curious about different parts of the world and excited to travel everywhere one day (I wonder where he got that from).
When we are looking through our atlas, talking about other countries, we speak not only about the people who live there and the language they speak, but also the different foods they eat and music they play as well.
My boys love listening and dancing to Spanish music, and learning about the Great Wall of China. They love to play with their Eiffel Tower from Paris and their Statue of Liberty from America, “where they say faaaast” in an American accent, as my kids like to point out.
Languages help children develop an appreciation for the world around them and cultures other than their own. It helps them to realize that there is more out there than what we know here.
2. Knowing more than one language can help children to accept change.
Knowing other languages can help your child be more adaptable in different environments. When my kids hear people speaking different languages it doesn’t affect them in a negative way. It isn’t something different and new. Instead, they embrace the change and usually want to learn a few words of the new lingo.
At the park recently, my son met a little girl from Malawi and they started to play while speaking Italian. He then heard her speak to her father in her native language. Immediately he was curious to know what language she was speaking. He didn’t laugh or get embarrassed as some other children did. He wasn’t scared that he couldn’t understand. Rather, he wanted to know what language it was and what they were saying.
3. Even with the basics of a language, you can communicate with someone new.
I will never forget when we were out at the park one day and a little boy heard me speaking in English with my boys. He ran over and immediately said, “Hello, how are you?” in a strong French accent. I was actually surprised as not many people speak English where we live, and after talking with him, I found out that his family was on holiday. My kids started talking back to him in English, and the little boy was really excited. His English wasn’t great, but he could communicate the basics and was having fun trying. In no time, he and my boys were running around playing like they were best friends. I could see the excitement in his eyes that he could speak to someone who understood him, even if it wasn’t in his native language.
4. You can travel knowing just the basics of a language.
I used to carry around a phrase book when traveling. You can get those multi-language books that contain the basics of a few languages. It made it easier when ordering food in a new country or buying train tickets. It was fun to learn too. You don’t need to be fluent in a language to travel, but it is nice to know a few words to get by. To immerse yourself in the culture and to be able to understand what is going on around you makes the experience so much better.
Why not teach our children a few new words when we travel or even when learning about a new country. You never know, it may just make them want to visit one day. My son has asked numerous times to visit the Great Wall of China, and I would love to visit as a family one day. Perhaps by then we will know enough of the language to get around.
5. To learn a language is to learn something new.
Learning something new is never wasted, no matter what it is. Kids are naturally intrigued by new things and love to learn. Learning new languages helps children to stay open to learning other things as well. It shows them not be afraid of the unknown and to try something at least once even when they don’t know what it will be like.
I don’t expect my kids to grow up speaking every language fluently. We are doing our best to at least make sure they become proficient in their native languages — English and Italian. It doesn’t worry me at all if they are not perfect Spanish speakers when they grow up or if they only ever learn the basics of Mandarin.
But I hope that they grow up to be well-rounded, openminded individuals who like and want to learn new things. I hope that they will be able to appreciate different people, their languages, and their cultures. I hope that they will travel to parts of the world and be able to embrace the culture they are immersed in. And just maybe when they are older and they meet someone who doesn’t speak their native language and they are able to communicate with them even just a little, they will see that learning languages was never wasted.