Cultural Musings

How to teach your small child English

Nowadays, parents are really concerned with their children learning English, which is totally understandable. There’s a lot of pressure on parents to speak English themselves, so it makes sense that they want to make it easier on their kids. The question is, when is the best time to get your kid started on their English-learning journey? Read on for my thoughts.

So, I get it – you want your kid to speak English well – better than you. You know that the key is getting started early, as it’s much easier to develop language skills the younger you are. That’s a noble desire, and you’ll be setting them up for success by getting them started early. But, when should you start? Is there such a thing as too early? Should it be before their first birthday? When they start speaking? What age is best? Well, it’s hard to say. What you have to ask yourself is whether you’ll see results if you start your toddler in group English lessons or have your 11-month-old have Skype lessons (real life situation). Maybe you will. If that’s what you think is the right thing to do – go ahead and try.

But don’t feel like you have to or else your kid won’t speak English well. One way or another, they’re going to speak English if you expose them to it – if it’s at age 1 or age 5. Remember, kids under age 11 have the greatest capacity for language acquisition, so it’s good to start before that age. However, unless it’s natural, like in the case of bilingual families, perhaps it makes more sense to let your child become more comfortable speaking their native language first before they start lessons. Once your child starts preschool, they’ll have lessons anyway, as it’s quite popular nowadays.

The best English teacher for your child

People ask me all the time if I speak English to my children and my answer is usually something like “well, duh!” What, am I going to speak Polish with them? They don’t need it! They have access to plenty of Polish native speakers ?

When my son started speaking, he constantly spoke to me in Polish. And he still does really often, especially if he just got home from preschool. I’ve always repeated back to him exactly what he says to me but in English. He’s almost 4 and I still do it. Or sometimes I say “hmm, mommy doesn’t understand that. Can you tell me in English?” So, you’ve really stick with it. Of course, it’s normal for me, and it’s not as big of a challenge as it might be for a non-native.

Of course, you could find a teacher for your child and they would meet with the teacher, what, once or twice a week for 20-30 minutes? Small children can’t even focus for longer than a few minutes, depending on their age. My honest opinion that is your child won’t get much from an English class once a week. Why waste your time and money, when you could do those things with your child yourself?

You probably know simple words and phrases like colors, animals, shapes, the ABCs, household objects, basic actions, etc. We know the best option would be for your kid to have daily exposure to the language with someone they trust. You might see where I’m going with this… My proposal: you should be the one to teach your child the basics of English. Think about it – you are the one who spends the most time with your child – and it’s normal for them to learn all kinds of things from you – especially language. That time needs to be filled with something – lots of somethings. Why not spend some of it speaking to them in English?

Be consistent

Sound good? Ok, so, where do you begin? Should you speak to them in English all the time or just some of the time? One of the parents could decide to speak exclusively to the child in English. To me, that’s a huge sacrifice if it’s not your native language, but I’ve seen families do it with success. Even though the child obviously had some gaps in knowledge, they could understand and have short conversations in English. And, most importantly, they felt comfortable with it.

If that sounds like too much to you, don’t worry. There are other options. Generally, you don’t have to be C2 level to teach your child simple things, but you do need to be consistent. You can’t do it once in a while and expect results. You need to try and speak to them in English every day. Maybe choose a certain time of the day when you speak English together, so that they know what to expect. It’ll become a routine for both of you.

Activities in English to do with your child

So, you’ve made the decision. Congratulations! Now, what are some activities you could do together? Here’s some options:

  • read books – (try TK Maxx – they have tons of books in English)
  • go outside and describe what you see
  • sing songs/lullabies
  • let them watch TV and movies in English
  • turn on some music and dance together
  • describe what they’re doing – focus on simple, everyday actions like you would in your native language. “Uh oh, you fell! Stand up!”, “Hurry, let’s go!”, “You have three blocks! One, two, three”. “What’s that? A car? A red car? Broom broom!”

What if my English isn’t very advanced?

See how simple those phrases are? You can definitely do that! Sure, you run the risk of them picking up your mistakes, but later they can work that out when they have lessons. The point is to expose them to the language and make them feel comfortable with it. You’re only focusing here on naming basic items, giving them a foundation, exposing them to the sounds, etc.

When should they start private lessons?

I believe your child will be ready for either group or individual lessons once they’re around 5 or 6. Group lessons are excellent for this age and individual lessons are possible, but not as much fun. Later on, when they’re a bit older – 7, 8, let’s say – they can start with a private teacher if that’s something you’d like them to do. But I don’t think they’ll be at a disadvantage if you put off those lessons a couple years. We see many students starting private lessons with native speakers around age 14 or 15, and I think that’s a great idea.

By no means am I an expert on child language acquisition, but I’ve been an English teacher for 10+ years, I have a master’s in linguistics, and I have two little English speakers living in Poland, so I believe I have some idea how it works. Generally though, you should do what you think is right. You want your kids to have lessons? Go for it! It certainly won’t do them any harm. They’re already at a major advantage having parents who speak English and are enthusiastic about the language – for sure seeing you speak English will have a great influence on them!

If you have any questions or comments, be sure to let me know.

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