We are not native English speakers but our daughter became one. Here’s what we did.

By on January 31, 2012
My wife and I come from countries where neither Japanese nor English was spoken.  My wife speaks Italian and I speak Spanish but we both speak the language of the other.  We communicate with each other in English, a language we both did not speak much until we came to Japan and had our daughter.  After having lived outside Europe for more than 20 years, it’s official:  English is now our second language!
From experience, learning a foreign language gets harder with age.  It is now the information age where English is the key language of technology and so we thought it only made sense to prepare our daughter for a foreign language.  English was the most sensible choice for us because it is a language widely spoken in the world.
But how many languages can a kid really handle?   The results of a  2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology shows children learn languages quickly.  The study also finds multilingual children to be more focused  compared to monolingual kids.

Kids in many countries learn a foreign language at an early age.  Contrary to what most people believe,  learning languages is not about having a DNA advantage.  In my experience, consistent exposure to languages at a young age is the key to mastery. When I was young,  my father used to let me watch old classic films in English like Casablanca, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, etc. It is extremely rare to meet people who learned a language at school and spoke it fluently.

In fact, the friends I know who learned the basics briefly at school continued their exploration of the language through travels to foreign countries, reading English journals, and socializing with people from different parts of the world.  There are always particularities unique to a language.  In Italian, Spanish, French or Portuguese language for example,  there are pesky conjugations to remember, male and female noun genders to match them with.  In English, however, none of the conundrum exists.  Kids respond passively to the whole contrast and brain shifts involved in assimilating one language to another thus, they pick up languages faster.

I think preparing the language template of our children should start early.  My wife and I decided long ago before the birth of our eldest daughter that she would speak to our daughter only in Italian and English with me.  Why not Spanish?   For our daughter to be admitted to an international school here, we thought it was best to have one of us talk to her in English from age 1.

So we started our project by exposing her to English cartoons regularly and play occasionally with a Japanese neighbour’s children. We bought her books in English. She loved the routine and is very comfortable with the arrangement.  Our hard work paid off when 5 years later, she was accepted at Seisen.
I encourage every parent to never give up and try to be consistent with who speaks what to whom.

How we did it:

1)  I found Sesame Street to be very educational. She watched it along with other Disney cartoons.

2)  I arranged a regular meet up with kids who speak the language and do family activities together.

3)  I read books to her everyday. It is how she learned new words every single day.  By age 4, she was choosing which books to read.

4) We never mixed two languages at home when speaking to our daughter.  Each language has its own grammatical rules and particularities.

5)  We introduced her to music, arts, and ballet.

6)  We visited friends, neighbors and relatives and had her play with children who spoke English.

7)  On public holidays in Japan, we frequently traveled overseas, each time a different country.  The experience that comes with traveling opens

About Paul Villendas