Children Learning a Second Language Dos and Don’ts

5 min to read
Learning Coach and online school student learning a second language

Learning a second language can improve children’s problem-solving skills, critical thinking, emotional development, and memorization abilities. Research finds that, compared to children who know only one language, bilingual students score higher on standardized tests, have more positive attitudes toward cultures different from their own, demonstrate more empathy, show more creativity, and have an increased ability to focus on tasks. Fortunately, research also finds that children learning another language does not damage learning or retaining their native language.

But how can Learning Coaches help their students learn another language, particularly if they themselves are not bilingual? Keep reading to find out.

How Do Children Learn Language

Two important factors in children’s ability to learn a second language are exposure and practice

Exposure refers to how many opportunities children have to interact with the language. Hearing the language helps students learn the correct pronunciation of words, as well as grammar and idioms. Seeing the language written aids students in learning how to spell the words, develop reading comprehension in the new language, and see the grammatical structures in action.

Students practice the language by speaking and writing it, and it is through practice that they receive critical feedback, identify errors, and make corrections.

Ideally, children would be totally immersed in a culture that speaks the language in question. Or children would be continually exposed to two languages at home and, in a way, the student and parent learn a foreign language as a family. However, these two options are not always feasible.

While older students can learn new languages, the earlier a child can learn a new language the better because they are more likely to internalize the correct pronunciation of words and the language’s rhythm. 

Learning a Second Language Don’ts

Have a Lack of Balance

When learning a second language, children need to interact with the language through speaking, listening, reading, and writing. Focusing too much on one element to the exclusion of the others can cause the students’ other language development skills to slow and thus hinder their language growth. There always needs to be a balance between language input (hearing and reading) and language output (writing and speaking).

Fear Imperfection

Perfect application and use of a language is not how children learn language and does not equal long-term retention. To the contrary, errors are learning opportunities for students, so students should not fear making mistakes.

Learning Coaches can provide students with low-stakes opportunities—meaning situations in which students will not feel embarrassed if they make mistakes—to practice their newfound language skills. Low-stakes options include activities that are ungraded or can be resubmitted for a higher grade.

Have Language Overload

Studying a language nonstop for hours on end can overload learners, which will cause them to retain little of the material. Instead, opt for distributed practice, which includes short study sessions that are spaced out over time. For example, instead of studying Spanish for three hours in one sitting, children should practice their Spanish skills for ten minutes every other day for the most efficient use of their time and for the most material retention.

Learning a Second Language Dos

Learn About the Culture

Teaching children about the cultures that use the language the child is learning can help the student feel interested and invested in the language. Also, exposure to people within those cultures gives children opportunities to hear the language and to try conversing with native speakers. 

This can be accomplished through travelling, working with foreign exchange students, hiring a bilingual caregiver, attending festivals, writing to a pen pal in a foreign country, finding a social group with people who speak the language the child is learning, or attending a local language immersion class.

Emphasize Vocabulary Acquisition

While grammar is important, vocabulary plays a more vital role in children learning and effectively using a new language. There are four main steps in learning and holding onto new words: being exposed to new words, reviewing the new words, recording the new words (such as writing them down on flashcards), and using the new words in addition to the already-learned words.

So, Learning Coaches should offer ample activities for children to learn and use new vocabulary.

Play Games

Games are great ways for children to interact with a foreign language in a positive manner. There are numerous interactive games and puzzles online and in physical forms to help children learn vocabulary—such as those targeting colors, animals, numbers, shapes, etc.

Learning Coaches can also integrate a foreign language into games that their children usually play. For instance, the game “Simon Says” can be conducted in the foreign language so that the child will associate the words that they hear with an action.

Another option is to label different items around the house using the foreign language and seeing how many the child can label correctly.

Use Screentime

Learning Coaches can use screentime to help children learn a foreign language by playing their students’ favorite TV shows in a different language or having students watch a movie in a foreign language. Most streaming services offer TV shows and movies in various languages and even include shows that are bilingual.


Research finds that listening to, and making, music activates speech and memory areas in the brain and helps humans in storing and creating new memories. This makes music perfect for learning a new language and being able to recall that information.

For children, nursery rhymes are particularly useful in learning and remembering new words and phrases of a foreign language.

Read Together

Learning Coaches should read bilingual books with their students so that students work on learning both their native language and a foreign language. Also, bilingual books help children associate known words with unknown words, thereby helping them learn contextually and sharpen their inferring abilities and reading-comprehension skills.

While the earlier a child can start learning a foreign language the better, children of all ages can benefit from learning a foreign language. Learning Coaches can ensure that children have opportunities to hear, see, speak, and write a foreign language by using positive and fun activities. Students and Learning Coaches can even learn a foreign language as a family together.

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