Tuesday Topic- Children and Language Learning

A good one about kids and language, always a hot topic!

From Phyllis: How do you “do languages” in your family?  How bi-lingual are your children and at what ages? *Which of the things that you have tried have been most helpful to your child as he or she learns/learned a second language?

(If you would like to pose a “Tuesday Topic” question, please email it to formissionarymoms@gmail.com . Provide your blog address if you would like to be linked to, and specify also if you would like to remain anonymous. Thanks!)

*Added by Ashley


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13 Responses to “Tuesday Topic- Children and Language Learning”


  1. 1 Becka April 13, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    I don’t have any advice in this area, mostly questions. My children have been attending a bi-lingual school and seem to be learning the language VERY slowly. It is the one thing that concerns me the most being new on the field. I desperately want my family to be speaking the language. I have been told to be patient… not my best attribute, I admit.

  2. 2 Erin April 13, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Our mission agency required us to attend language school before we hit the field. My daughter (then 10 years old) was in school and had language school as well, while we were in full-time language acquisition. I must say this was the most important decision we made. We were all 100% focused on language acquisition! We have heard many people who tried to be “in the field” and either learn on the streets, or attend language school at the same time, and most have had a VERY difficult time. My daughter is now in a bilingual school and speaks much better Spanish than I do. She talks with her classmates in their native tongue, and even is a teacher for our ESL class teaching in the national tongue. This was definitely successful for us. I will say that while we are at home, we all speak English. It is a time for our minds to relax and recoup from a full day of other language speaking.

  3. 3 Ashley L April 14, 2010 at 4:22 am

    Our family also speaks English at home, much for the same reason as Erin. I feel like our time together is a treasure with our busy life, so since we aren’t 100% fluent in Russian, we focus on connecting while we are together (speaking of when my husband is home from the ministry day). I have tried to get the kids to speak Russian with me at home during the day, but it doesn’t usually last that long if we aren’t around other Russian speakers. They know I speak English and are not excited to speak Russian with me. My preschooler often says, “Mooooom, we speak ENGLISH at home!” =)

    The most helpful thing so far as far as our kids has been Russian pre-school (which only my daughter attends right now as she is the oldest). She gets to learn in a very fun environment and is motivated to communicate. One hindrance for us though has been having other English speaking kids in the class. Though it is great for them socially and for the period of adaptation (recently my daughter has had two friends who are also MKs in her class), my daughter will often default to speaking with whomever is easiest to communicate with, which has slowed things a bit. Another good place has been Sunday school. Even my little guy picks up new things each week. Also, playing outside with the neighborhood kids is another great help. Anywhere that the kids are motivated to be able to participate has been the best place for language learning for our family.

  4. 4 Andrea Pavkov April 14, 2010 at 7:26 am

    Our boys are homeschooled which is in English so they are not getting Portuguese other than using Rosetta Stone during school and when they are out in the community. They attend both an English church and a village church in Portuguese and a tribal language. We have just put them into a local soccer club that is taught in Portuguese so that is sure to speed up their acquisition. We also have a good size English speaking community here in town amongst the MK’s etc. However we also have about 10 other languages spoken (german, dutch, swedish, afrikans, irish, shona, etc.) just among the missionaries and Ex Pats. All that language can be overwhelming for children as well as adults. It is quite amusing actually to visit one of our missionary fellowships as you can have 4 or 5 languages going in the same room at the same time. I think it would be fantastic for my boys to become bi-lingual but I do not think it has to be a high pressure process where I feel I am failing as a parent if my kids take time to learn the language. I am wondering why everyone feels such pressure that their child MUST speak the language fluently?

  5. 5 Ashley L. April 14, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Your last question is a great one, Andrea! I totally agree that the pace differs from family to family! To answer it from the viewpoint of our family, I guess the reason that we are really hoping for our kids to become proficient in the language is for the sake of their comfort with life here as well as for their ability to have friendships. We see ourselves here long term and the average person in the community does not speak English and it is not a very foreigner-friendly place to navitgate, so they will be severely limited if they do not speak Russian. It probably also depends a lot on how large the English speaking community is around any one family, the atmosphere and ease of navigation where you live, as well as the social needs of the child/family. I know that my very social little daughter already gets frustrated that she can’t talk to everyone, so I see it as a high need for her to learn the language soon so she doesn’t remain too frustrated. All that said though, we are not forcing it at all. Kids’ minds are so absorbent and they learn languages much more naturally and easily than we do. All the things that we are doing are enjoyable for our kids. We just see language as a huge key in opening up opportunities for them to thrive here and thus are trying to make opportunities for learning.

  6. 6 Andrea Pavkov April 14, 2010 at 9:37 am

    I didn’t mean to sound like I don’t value language learning and our children becoming bi-lingual. I see the value in that for sure. I also understand that we are fortunate in that we have a good size English speaking community for our children to develop friendships etc without the pressure of first having to learn a language. We are grateful as we have not always had this.I guess I was just trying to say I think we have enough self-imposed things as missionaries that we can feel pressured about that I don’t think anyone should feel pressured or lacking if their children are not bi-lingual.

  7. 7 Nancy DeValve April 14, 2010 at 10:15 am

    We were fortunate in that our children were 1 and 3 when we moved to the village. We were four of about seven English-speakers in town, so our children were immersed in the Songhai language and culture. If they didn’t play with neighbor children they wouldn’t have any friends! They are now 18 and 21 and Nigeriens tell us that if they hear them speaking, but don’t see them, they think they are Nigerien. My Nigerien friends will often ask my daughter to translate what I’m saying or have her explain what they are saying!

    When our son was three and we had just moved to the village I was with him at our neighbor’s house. He said something and she started to laugh so I asked her what he said. She told me, but it was meaningless words to me. So she explained the meaning and I was horrified! The next day my husband told our language helper to teach him all the bad words in the language. We needed to know so we’d know when our kids were using them! (Especially since those words are used prolifically in the language.)

    Both of our children also studied French in school. They can speak and understand passably since French is spoken quite widely in larger cities, anyway. But it is definitely not their language of choice and they aren’t really comfortable with it…it was more of a school subject.

    Also, we always spoke English at home. Our children refused to speak Songhai at home with us.

  8. 8 Ashley L April 14, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Totally, Andrea! I agree with you that this is not an area at all for comparison and feelings of guilt! It seems like each of our circumstances and unique family needs are great individual guides on what pace to aim for. I am happy you brought up this point because you are so right that it can become an area of unhealthy comparison.

  9. 9 momfessions April 14, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks for these helpful replies! I am making decisions about how my children (now 3 and 1 1/2) will learn language! 🙂

  10. 10 Richelle April 15, 2010 at 1:55 am

    Andrea, I so agree that we shouldn’t feel pressured to “make” our kids learn the language… God leads each family differently in this particular area.

    For our children, the best way to learn the language has been immersion in school. Once they have friends, they have a reason to try and speak and one of the best places to get friends is school.

    We speak English and what we call “Franglais” in our home – not hesitating to use French words, expressions and language when it better expresses what we are trying to communicate. We speak French when we are working on homework from the French school. We speak French when we have visitors and that is the language of communication, choosing not to switch to English out of deference to our visitors. Our children all speak better French than we do and know common phrases in several of the local languages that they’ve learned from school and the playground.

    Each one of our children has learned differently. Some try to speak from day one. Others learn to hear the language first. One needs to write things down and analyze the parts and the whole – he says he wants to be a translator. 🙂 One thing that we’ve found to be key is to not frustrate or push our kids, but pray that they desire to learn to communicate, give them opportunities, enjoy the language and laugh at our fun mistakes, and most importantly, model a love for people that wants to communicate in the languages that they prefer, not in what is most comfortable for us.

  11. 11 Phyllis April 15, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Ashley, thank you so much for using my question!

    I want to add that I certainly don’t want this to be an area of comparison! It’s just something that affects lots of missionary families, and it’s personally interesting to me. The way we do it seems to be considered backwards by many, and some people have really criticized us for it. (After our last time in the states, we got on the plane headed back this way, and there was a German family next to us who did language “our way.” It felt so good to talk to them! and I always enjoy talking to other moms about whatever way they have decided to make languages work in their own family.) Anyway, each family is different, and what works for one family won’t be right for everyone, but we can still help and encourage one another.

    What has helped our children more than anything else is playing with other children. We spent almost 3 MONTHS in the states, but that was almost all visiting with adult relatives and friends. At the end of that time, our children were still mostly refusing to speak English. Then we came to Ukraine and spent 3 WEEKS with an American family. By the end of our time with them, our oldest was speaking decent English, and our second child was at least willing to try!

    Like I said, we’ve kind of done things backwards: we speak Russian all the time with our children. My husband and I still speak English to each other at home, so they hear it, kind of going on over their heads. Our children seem to be more stubborn about languages than some; they want only one language until they’re 3 or so. (That was really nerve-wracking with our first! What if he never learns?!?! Now we just kind of accept it as the way our children are. 🙂 ) An ex-pat mother once told me that bi-lingual children are a myth. Now, that’s a little strong–I’ve seen children speak several languages very young–but in the early years ours seem to follow what that mom said. We get the same reaction that Ashley and others mentioned if we try to speak English to our children: “Mama, don’t talk funny! We speak RUSSIAN!”

    Our Russian definitely isn’t perfect, and I used to wonder if we’d be able to speak it well enough to make it our main family language. I’ve learned along the way, though. One of the things that started us in this direction was that both my husband and I worked with Russian children a lot, before we had our own. Somehow it just seems natural to us to speak Russian with children. Even though ours have learned mostly from us, they haven’t picked up our accents, and at this point they’re even starting to correct us some.

    Now our oldest is 6, and I’ve been homeschooling him all year. He’s doing quite well with English! He’ll accept me speaking English to him, if it makes sense with that subject (i.e. English reading lessons and American history in English). He does still prefer Russian. Our 4-year-old has started trying to speak English on the rare occasions that she’s with English speakers, but she’s still pretty hard to understand. And our 2-year-old only speaks Russian. Well, if you ask her if she speaks English, she’ll answer “Yas,” and then go off into this crazy babble that sounds like Chinese or something. 🙂

  12. 12 Jess in Europe April 24, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    My husband and evaluated how we would approach our children’s language learning before we arrived in Eastern Europe and continue to do so. We arrived almost a year and a half ago and have another 18 months here. Knowing that immersion is the best way for a child to learn and knowing that my children need constant instruction,we decided for them to stay home with me. This is a very uncommon route for missionaries, but I’m happy with my children’s growth. They are around nationals a lot and survive even though they don’t know the language. We have tried to find extracurricular activities to broaden what our oldest, 4, does, but there is nothing here for children younger than 6. I would love for them to pick up more language, but not at the sacrifice of their obedience. I don’t see how I can have it both ways, knowing how the children in the daycare programs act here.

  13. 13 Kelly S. May 2, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    Great topic! Like Jess in Europe, my husband and I prayed much about how we would allow our children to learn the language. Knowing that submersion is the fastest way to teach them, we opted for the sheltered, slower learning approach. Learning the language is a priority but it is not above the priority of protecting our children’s hearts! In this particular school system the negatives (Catholic teachings, evolution, worldly music, dance, foul language, alternative lifestyles, and bad influences on many levels) far outweighed the positives (language and potential contacts). We currently have 4 children, ages 5, 4, 2, and 1 and another is due in October. The oldest two are homeschooled. We have been on the field for just over 3 years now and the kids are just now beginning to make great efforts to communicate. Our children have been hearing the language in Sunday School, soccer lessons, and from a private tutor in our home. They will also be attending private music lessons in the years to come. It has been a slow process and at times, a little discouraging. Another missionary family arrived the same month we did and they enrolled their three children (same ages) in the public schools and they are speaking very well. However, I realize that they WILL get it, slowly but surely, as we follow the Lord’s leading in our lives in this particular area. The best advice one could give would be is to pray, pray, PRAY about what the Lord would have your family to do!


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