Opening up the world of languages to a child

I will be writing about the topic of opening up the world of a subject or another for a few posts. If you’d like to read my previous post on math, you can find it here. This one is about languages as that is another hobby of mine and my daughter’s. I like to learn languages and am learning Swedish and French actively and Italian and Chinese more passively and when I have time. My daughter has of course seen me do this and has asked why I do it. Most likely due to this, from quite a young age she has been interested in languages and asked me “mommy, what is this in X?”. So we learn languages together.

There have been several research findings (f.ex. see here, here, and here) on the benefits of bilingualism. Also in this world of thousands of languages (6909 by one source) it seems quite self-evident that teaching a child to understand and/or speak in several is a good idea. With all this info it might have been self-evident that I have raised a bilingual child. But I haven’t. This is because I, at the point when the decision was made, believed that one needs to be bilingual or at least a native speaker for it to be worth-while. I have since changed my mind. What ever opening and start you can give your child, it is ok. Of course it would be great if I could speak Swedish like native as that would be best. However, I cannot. Still with my less than native ability I believe can give a head start on Swedish that will help her later in school. So these ideas I am about to introduce, you can use with a more limited ability in a foreign language. These will not make a child bilingual, but they:

  • Help the child realise that there are several languages in the world and one can learn them, or some of them.
  • That the same item has many names based on the language spoken
  • Widen the sound-register we all have, that is most attuned to the sounds of our native language, to include the sounds of other languages as well
  • Learn words in another language and at some point sentences as well

This kinds of things are best done throughout your daily routines and as a part of them. That way they are built into your daily life instead of just forming a separate part that does not connect with the everyday activities. So what to do?


© publicdomainstockphotos | Dreamstime Stock Photos: Dad And Son In The Park.


The younger the child is, the more this, as math, needs to be action-based and based on play. Daughter knows the words to numbers 1-10 in four languages (Finnish, Swedish, French and English) as I count with them as she runs from the sofa to the back door and back. We have also practiced them through playing hide and seek. We agree first the language with which I count and then I count loudly enough for her to hear. These can also be learned by counting things together. Kids will first listen for a long time before saying anything back and I almost lost hope at some point. Luckily I didn’t because eventually she was saying them as well.

Verbs are easy to teach as they indicate doing something. We had a great time on the trampoline as she learned the verbs jump, run, sit, stand. First I would say out loud the word I was doing  at the time, f.ex. jump, I would jump and say “jump, jump, jump”. After a while we played a game where I would say a word and she would do the action as fast as she could (jump, run…). Including verbs like tickle can increase the fun factor. Also making funny sounds when a child makes a mistake can make that mistake fun instead of a bad thing, which is very important.

The words for animals we learned through basic repetition through books and puzzles first. Then we played a game while riding the bus for instance of me saying the name of the animal in a foreign language and her making the sound it makes. This does not require her to be able to remember how to say the word, just to understand what it means. Colours were the same. We learned them through basic repetition while doing fun things. This could be, for instance, me saying the name for a colour and then we would search the house or the garden for anything of that colour. Later we discussed the colour of the sky or plants, for instance I would say: “are the clouds more gray or white?” with the names of the colours in the foreign languages. We also looked at the clothes we were wearing to see what colours were there. The more active, playful and engaging each activity is, the better the words seem to be remembered.

The name of foods can be learned while eating. I asked my daughter if she wanted water or milk and saying just the words for water and milk in a foreign language. Then she could choose which she wanted to drink using what ever language she chose. This can be done with just about anything one can eat. The foods on the plate can also be introduced in a foreign language.

For the name of things we can see while walking around, we played a game where I would name something I saw in a foreign language and she tried to guess what it was. This was a fun activity to do while going from one place to another and can be done with colours as well or animals, for that matter, if the place has them.

Once the child has basic words, then one can start to introduce simple sentences. They are harder to grasp than the physical and tangible, but they increase exposure to the foreign language. Greetings are easy and we say good night in four languages, on some nights at least. Books also help here. Some children’s books contain very basic vocabulary and are easily translated simultaneously to reading. I found a wonderful series “Busiga Bebben” for Swedish, which also included little problems to ponder upon that were suited to a child that age.

Last, but definitely not least, is songs. Songs help in learning a language. Even before most of these I could hear my daughter sing its bitsy spider (or actually imse vimse spindel as she sang in Swedish). The words were recognisable. The music helps remember the words and pronunciation to stick better especially as children’s songs are the most amazing eagworms. The more simple the song, the better. For English I have used this playlist on Youtube as it has a lot of basic vocabulary. For Swedish I haven’t found one equally good, but have used this one and ones similar to it.

For older kids, one can utilise the plethora of games to learn languages. My daughter has played some of them and they do entertain a little, but at least the games teaching vocabulary have been deemed mostly boring in our household. Games in a foreign language, where the purpose is not to learn that language but to use it to do something interesting, are better but usually not for children as young as mine. Also watching familiar shows on the tv in another language can work, but these are not anything as effective as playing in real life. At least younger kids are not able to pick up the language nearly as efficiently as from another person, if they indeed do pick it up at all.

So if you, like me have a hobby of learning languages, do include your children if you have them. Or if you have children and would like to give them a head start in a foreign language, it is not hard. The only thing that is hard is to remember to do it frequently and to stop when the child is not interested. Little and often is far better than a lot infrequently.

Copyright text and images: Satu Korhonen. You are free to try these experiments out, use them in your teaching. But instead of copying the text or images, link back to this page.

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