How can children keep language skills when not in daily use?

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Help your child retain their second language

One of the great advantages of expat life is the opportunity for the children to learn another language. While it isn’t always quite as easy as some suggest, and does require effort and attention, it is certainly easier than learning a language as an adult.

My children were born in Germany, and spoke German and English fluently when we moved to Geneva. After four years in a French-speaking school, we were keen for them to retain both these languages when we returned to UK. I wasn’t worried about their German language skills, as my husband is German, and we speak German at home, but how to manage their third language, which neither parent speaks fluently?

These are the things that we found helpful:

Listen to online radio

There are countless apps for smartphones which enable the user to listen to radio stations from around the world. Perhaps you had a favourite station when you lived abroad – choose one that broadcasts a mix of chatter and music. This also gives kids some continuity, and helps them keep up with news from the place you’ve just left.

Meet native speakers

The ease of finding other speakers of the language obviously depends where you live, and how unusual the language is. If you’re moving from Paris to London, then you’ll have no trouble finding other French speakers. You may not want to start formal classes, and from my experience it can be quite tricky to find classes of the appropriate level for more fluent children. If you can find a group of people who speak the language, preferably with children, and meet up occasionally, then this can help keep the language alive.

Private classes or tutoring

As mentioned, it can be difficult to locate a class that teaches at the appropriate level for your kids. Group lessons for kids are too easy for them – they’d be bored with learning the colours and singing nursery rhymes. Adult classes are too advanced, both in the topics discussed and the attention to grammar. A private tutor is often more appropriate, but it is important to keep these lessons fun and engaging. The ‘lessons’ can be spent playing board games, baking, doing crafts, or even doing their regular homework, but in the second language.

Trips abroad

This is a tricky one, because you might not want to go back to the place you’ve just left all too soon. For kids who are really missing their friends, it can be like tearing off a sticking plaster, just as the wound was almost healed. Leaving again could set them back in their acceptance of your new home. Choose another country, where the language is spoken, but which doesn’t hold such precious memories, and won’t be such a wrench to leave again.

Use social media

The advent of social media networks means that it is much easier for young people to keep in touch with their friends when they move away. Instagram is incredibly popular with tweens and teens, and is a good way for them to exchange short messages, or even videos with their friends. Video calling, using Skype, Google Hangouts or FaceTime, helps to keep the language skills fresh and up-to-date.

Be flexible

For some children, the trauma of leaving their ‘home’ can cut deep. Nicola Miller, a freelance writer from England spoke Spanish from the age of four to eight years, when she lived with her family in Mexico. Returning to England was a shock, and Nicola desperately missed the family’s housekeeper Maria, to whom she was extremely close. Rejecting Spanish was her way of dealing with this loss, and it wasn’t until she was an adult, that Nicola began to reawaken her language skills.

Research suggests that even if a person has no active memory of a language, there is a residue left in the brain, for a very long time. Your child won’t forget their second language immediately, so let them take some time to come to terms with the move first, if they are reluctant to engage.

By Lynn Schreiber

Lynn Schreiber is a British writer and blogger who has lived and worked in Switzerland and Germany. She has a particular interest in the rights of women and children, and in 2012 launched Jump! Magazine, an online resource for pre-teen girls. She blogs on her personal blog and for Gates Foundation blog
Lynn’s first book ‘Learn Twitter in Ten Minutes’ was published in September 2012.

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