Home » Q&A » Overcoming the Greatest Challenge in Teaching Young Children a Foreign Language

Overcoming the Greatest Challenge in Teaching Young Children a Foreign Language

Dear Professor Arguelles,

My name is Marisol. I just saw your video about the greatest challenge in teaching yourself a foreign language and here I am writing to you in the middle of a night. In the point 2 of the submission guidelines, it is said that the goal of this beautiful initiative is “to provide a lasting body of reference for autodidactic language learners”. Bearing this in mind, I would like to kindly ask you to read my request till the very end, if at first glance, you considered my letter “out of scope” of the self teaching community challenges, as I will try to prove that my question is at the very heart of the learning process.

The most relevant part of my situation for this question I have is that I am the mother of a four year old boy, Martin. As you can imagine he is too little to read an Assimil book, but already so hungry for knowledge. If Bacon was right, starting with a foreign language would not be a bad choice, I think. So the question I have would be: how to start teaching him French, which I myself learned while in university.

You might think, what does this have to do with self teaching techniques and your material about “the greatest challenge”. So self-learners easily agree, even in the comment section, that the biggest challenge is “to do.” But the question should be not how to overcome this challenge, but why this challenge exists for so many in the first place. Because, as I know your background from your video, this was never a challenge for you. You could learn 12 hours a day, and nobody would have to tell you: “listen, if you really discipline yourself, you will make it”. In fact you said in one video that your father would have never told you to study. My assumption is, you can do a lot by “doing it”, but it will never have this quality of your’s studying languages – the joy of it.

I can see how my son is engaging easily in pretty much everything and that the only thing that can make him reluctant is bad teacher, bad teaching techniques. I use the word reluctant, the same word you used while speaking about vocabulary learning techniques. Imagine you are invited into the world of languages by vocabulary. And that’s the case!

Could you share with us, in more detail, how your adventure with languages started? Maybe show us how to read to children? Could you just simply read a book for children out loud?

Thank you for sharing your precious knowledge online.

Kind regards,
Marisol Kowalski

My reply:

Dear Marisol Kowalski,

Thank you for writing with a question that is not at all outside the scope of this page as many people who love learning languages themselves want to share this with their children. Indeed, people who do not know languages themselves also sometimes seek to have their children learn languages, and there are also many people who find themselves living in and raising their children in a linguistic environment other than their own who often seek assistance in encouraging their offspring to learn and use their heritage language.

Sadly, the general rule is for children to resent, resist, and reject this process. However, I myself successfully raised my two sons to be bilingual in French as well as in English. I was able to do this despite French not being my native language (although it is one of my strongest learned languages) and despite my wife not speaking it at all. I was also able to do this despite not living in a Francophone country except for two years at the very beginning. I am thus living evidence that this can be done, and I am happy to share the way that I did it.

It started when we were living in Lebanon and we enrolled my older son, then 3 years old, in a French-speaking nursery school. As I carried him there and back on my shoulders, I figured that since he was speaking French all day, I would just keep it up with him. We did the same on weekends when we would go to the library to get books in French that I would read to him during the week. My younger son was born there about this time, and as he grew older and joined us in excursions and readings, we just always did this in French. I simply made a point of always speaking French with them when it was just us alone, though we spoke English when my wife, parents, or others were present. And I myself always chose French books to read aloud to them, though they also had English books, which I was happy to read to them when they requested them.

So, speaking to them all the time in the language was one key, and another was reading aloud to them, which I did every single day for hours when they were too young to do so themselves, and still every evening in bed as they aged (even today, when they are home from college, we still do this, though now we often take turns reading). Another key was taking full advantage of the Alliance Française. I took them to AF libraries in Beirut, Berkeley/San Francisco, Singapore, and Dubai every single weekend – that was the core of our father-son time on Saturdays, going there and spending hours reading before taking books home for the week. Furthermore, when they were of age, I put them through the entire sequence of Saturday-school classes for Francophone kids in the Alliance Française Singapore and Dubai, so we would spend much of the day there.

Over the years, when picking them up from these classes, both their teachers and the other kids’ parents (at least one of whom was always Francophone) asked me what my secret was, for the other children generally reverted to English when among themselves even in the classroom there, while my sons never did this. Also, they said the others resisted doing their homework and reading or speaking French at home, while my sons simply did so as a matter of course. I think that the secret was that I was doing this first of all out of true love of the language, and secondly in a perfectly natural manner. I suspect that the others were doing this more out of a sense of obligation or a notion that it would be useful (rather than out of love), and that it probably had a forced air to it (“OK, now it is time to read French…”).

I hope this answers your inquiry as to how to get Martin started on his road to French, and that this post is useful to others as well in similar situations.

With best regards,

Alexander Arguelles

Ask a Question

Would you like my advice for developing a systematic, long-term plan for learning languages and accessing literatures? This website provides a place where you can describe your background, current activities, and goals in sufficient detail for me to provide you with meaningful advice, and where our exchange can remain as a lasting resource for others with similar scholarly aspirations.

My name is Alexander Arguelles. I have pursued foreign languages and literatures with a passion all my life. My goal is to share the knowledge and experience I have gained with others who would like to do the same. Find out more →

Share this Page