Learning Foreign Languages Alongside Your Kids

Hola. Salut. Marhaba. It's becoming more common for kids to learn another language in school. And for parents, it can all sound a bit, well, foreign. But don't fret. In fact, your kids can teach you – all while boosting their own bilingual skills.

If someone says “salud” when you sneeze, it’s the equivalent of saying “bless you” in Spanish. It’s an exchange I have with my friends and parents frequently – and you may have with your child as they start learning a language in school this year.

Though most of my coworkers now know a few small words and phrases such as “salud,” “¿Qué pasa?” and “chiquita,” since I use them a lot, most people are still at a loss when I segue into speaking Spanish. And, again, you might be too.

“Schools are pushing for bilingual education,” says Melissa Wolfe, a Spanish teacher for Richmond Community Schools. While K-8 foreign-language offerings were dropping in 2008, a Center For Applied Linguistics report found, now, schools are starting to see the value of at least teaching younger kids the basics, Wolfe says – especially since they absorb it easier.

Luckily, parents don’t need to know a single French conjugation or Latin noun. Instead, why not learn right along with your kids? I recently saw a Coca-Cola bottle that said “suavemente besáme” and was eager to share its translation with my parents. You might be surprised how excited your kids are to enlighten you, as well.

“One of the easiest ways to learn a language is to teach it,” says Wolfe says. “The act of teaching it cements it into their brain.”

Language benefits

Today, contacting a person in another country is as easy as tapping a screen. However, many parents don’t know a second language, or even the basics, because they don’t remember or never learned in the first place.

But there are definite payoffs to learning one – for both your kids and, yes, you.

“It changes your life and view of other cultures,” says Ernesto Chavez, co-founder of Bright Loritos, a program in Novi and Troy that teaches children ages 1-15 Mandarin, Arabic, French and Spanish.

“Learning a language keeps the brain active and staves off memory loss,” notes Wolfe – and, Chavez adds, it opens job opportunities and delays neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Not only does it help with brain function and memory, it can be fun, too.

“It can help the parent engage in a new interest,” says Holly Walker-Coté, a Spanish professor at Oakland University in Rochester. “Broaden someone’s experience. It’s a new hobby.”

Another factor: As schools put more emphasis on learning another language early on, kids may begin to know more about it than their parents.

“For children, any type of language is easy to learn,” Chavez says. “For adults, languages with the same alphabet as English are easier.” With kids, who pick up things quickly, the best time to start getting them bilingual is by age 10.

Not to mention, learning a second language has been linked to better math and problem-solving skills, decision-making chops and SAT scores, Ernesto says.

“We’re behind in the U.S. with being multilingual,” Walker-Coté says. “Other countries need to learn how to communicate with neighbors, and we’re kind of isolated.” On other continents, countries are closer together. In places like Europe, families can day trip to a country that speaks a different language.

“People in other countries are outperforming,” Wolfe says. “In the U.S., we want students to perform better.”

Kids as teachers?

Even as an adult, Wolfe answers her father’s questions about Spanish, though he studied German in college. He’s still curious to learn from his daughter.

A fun first tip is to label household items. “Start with things you see every day,” says Walker-Coté. “Our vocab day-to-day really doesn’t change much.”

It may not be the best-looking decor, but seeing the words every day helps you remember them. Make a “la mesa” label for the kitchen table, for example, or tape an “el espejo” sign up on a mirror. It can be a fun project to do with your child. You can also do this with phrases like “What’s for dinner?” or “Good morning.”

“It certainly couldn’t hurt for a child to make and give quizzes,” Wolfe adds. “Sometimes the act of creating an assessment will give a child an opportunity to think about the new language.” Plus, in a plot twist, they get to grade a grown-up.

Something else that may help is asking a child to translate a word or phrase from English to another language and, if they don’t know, have them look it up. That way you both learn something new.

Another tip? Watch kids TV shows in Spanish or another language. And try a kids program that’s actually in another language. Not necessarily Dora the Explorer.

“Shows for Spanish-speaking children that help them learn,” explains Wolfe. “Like how English-speaking children might learn basics from Sesame Street.” Chavez says kids can even watch their favorite DVDs with the language changed, since many discs have this option.

Wolfe also suggests picking up an activity book, like a coloring book, with numbers and letters to help with the basics small children learn. Walker-Coté says that her students, especially older adults, like apps and websites that help teach a language as a resource because the access is so easy.

As for what to learn, vocab is usually first. Things like colors, numbers, letters and household items can be very useful and are easy to practice.

“Greetings as courtesy are super useful,” says Walker-Coté. “They’re very embedded in our language. Manners are important.”

She suggests parents learn greetings and eventually grow a list of “hellos,” “goodbyes” and other common words like “please” and “thank you.” If you have more than one word or phrase to choose from, it can make it more interesting.

It’s also important to learn to talk about feelings. There are a lot of emotions we have that can be expressed. Asking how someone is and the correct possible responses to that are a very important part of the language.

Chavez says music in other languages or bilingual books, some of which can be found at Michigan’s own mama-lady-books.com, are great ways to practice.

Does this really help?

It does. As a college Spanish student myself, I love to teach someone else what I know. It helps me to understand and remember what I’ve learned. The same goes for younger kids.

“It gives them practice and gets them over their filter,” Walker-Coté says. “They can practice in a comfortable environment.”

Many children hesitate to speak a second language out loud because they’re afraid of judgment, but by using it at home, it gives them a safe environment to improve their speed and confidence.

“If kids are teaching it, they will know it better,” Wolfe says.

Consider other people you might know who can speak a second language, like friends or neighbors, who can chat with your child in that language.

“One-hundred percent, the best way to learn is social interaction,” says Chavez. “It’s how they learned their first language.”

Both Walker-Coté and Wolfe have traveled to Spanish-speaking countries, and communicating there solidified their own skills – even after knowing the language for so long. “If you don’t use it,” says Wolfe, “you lose it.”

Wolfe also encounters many parents who say they took years of Spanish and don’t remember any of it. But, by helping your child cement their knowledge, you can help them avoid the same fate.

Best of all, learning alongside or from your kids can be a great bonding experience. It makes both of you worldlier and it can be a lot of fun – even the harder stuff.

“The brain is better able to learn when they are bilingual,” says Wolfe.

So even if you’ve never learned anything of another language before, ask your studying child to help teach you, so you can enjoy the benefits together.

Small Talk

Learning language basics is the first step to becoming bilingual. Here, Ernesto Chavez of Bright Loritos in Novi and Troy helps translate a casual greeting.


“Hello! How are you?”
“I’m good, and you?”


“¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?”
(Oh-lah! Co-mo ehs-tahs?)
“Bien, ¿y tú?”
(Bee-en, ee too?)


“Marhaba! Kaif halak?”
(Mar-ha-ba! Kafe ha-lick?)
Male: “Ana bekhair, wa-anta?”
(Ana bekh-air, wa-ant-ah?)
Female: “Ana bekh-air, wa-ante?” (Ana bekh-air, wa ant-ee?)


“Salut! Comment ça va?”
(Sa-loo! Co-mo seh vah?)
“Bien, et toi?”
(Bee-ahn, e-h-tuwah?)

Kids Shows

Looking for a children’s show in a foreign language? Add these to your queue.

Un Medico in Famiglia (Italian): This series follows a young doctor and his family moving to a new town and has become one of the most successful series in Italy.

ABC Bär (German): About a bear and his friends who like numbers and letters, this show teaches the basics of a more complex language much like Sesame Street.

Plaza Sésamo (Spanish): Much like children in America learn from Sesame Street, Spanish-speaking children learn the same basics of their language from this show with its own cast of characters and puppets.

The Adventures of Hello Kitty & Friends (Cantonese): This newer series documents the ever-popular Hello Kitty, and though it can be found in English, the original language it was broadcast in is Cantonese.

Les Aventures De Tintin (French): Comic series The Adventures of Tintin originated in Belgium, and the cartoon broadcast in France. Follow along with theses stories adapted for television.


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