"I want to improve my children’s English. They watch TV and movies in English, so why don't they speak?" This is something I hear from our students’ parents frequently.
If learning a language were a recipe, it would take 4 ingredients: input, interaction, output, and a lot of fun.
Would you speak your native language if you had never heard your parents speaking it? Can we master a language without ever hearing it? Of course not! We need language input.
Input refers to what learners hear and experience. It is extremely important in the beginning stages of learning a new language. The conversations we hear, TV shows we watch, songs we listen to, and books we read all have a big impact on how we use language later.
For this reason, it is important to have as much input as possible because this is how learners learn the sounds, rules, and rhythms of the new language. If you only learned your language from robots, you would speak like a robot!
When giving language input to children, it is also extremely important that the language input have a clear context. Watching TV and cartoons where they can see what’s happening and reading stories with lots of images are excellent ways to help your children experience and understand the language.
For best results, make sure that the topics of input are things that the children are interested in. (World politics may be interesting to you, but your 5 year old son may prefer Paw Patrol or superheroes.)
Okay, so we understand why learners need lots of language input, but what’s next? Is a language useful if you can only understand it? Of course not! Language is best when you can use it, so this is where interaction becomes important.
"Do you want ice cream?" "Which toy do you want?" "Pass me the ball." Children are on average not motivated to learn a language for the sake of higher knowledge (sadly, this interest only comes later in life). Children are motivated to use language when it can help them ask for something that they need or to say something that they want to say.
For this reason, input is not enough; children need to interact in order to feel the full power of this new language. Interaction is the only way that the learner receives feedback for what they say. Does it make sense? Should I repeat? Did I mispronounce a word? - These are all questions that can only be answered through interaction.
You can motivate your children to use the new language by having them use it to order dessert, ask for a new toy, or to play games. Playing board games and sports are both wonderful ways of developing your children’s language skills because it gives them a clear context in which they can use the language in a rewarding way.
For example, if your son says “Pass me the ball” and you pass it to him, this confirms its meaning and offers a pleasant experience. On the other hand, if he says something like “Put me the ball!”, he will learn that it didn’t make sense when he doesn’t receive the ball.
This may be surprising to some, but in order to learn a language, it is important to practice using that language.
For both native and second language learners it is easiest to learn a language when you are able to experiment with it. For children, output comes more slowly and requires consistent input and interaction to achieve.
Did you start speaking your native language the day you were born? - Probably not. Your parents talked to you, read to you, and asked you questions for many years before you were likely able to express your opinions and feelings without help. The same is true for second language users.
Give your children time and praise them for any output they do make in the new language (even if it is not exactly grammatically accurate).
There's no quick recipe for successful language learning. It is a slow bake which requires you to gently combine input, interaction, and output. For a better taste stir in as much fun as possible throughout the entire process.