Like so many topics and articles about how our children learn, this one is far from being a final say, much less a 'final draft'. Five versions later, I realized that I only wanted to share something relevant, and perhaps offer some meaningful ideas about how children learn other languages and how we could better support them.

Only several drafts later did this epiphany hit me, and only now did I realize I was getting mired in an idea that does not, or should not, exist.

There is no final draft on this topic.

We should all remain open to any changes in our approach.

Leading With a Spirit of Curiosity

I recently listened to a podcast that mentioned that the two main ingredients of happiness are love and curiosity.

They were mentioned in the context of what we should think about more to build happier lives. As we parents and teachers are also concerned with the happiness of our children and students, it only seems natural for us to start here.

There’s quite a bit to say about the former, love, but I want to keep this article focused on the latter, curiosity because the best learning starts with it.

So, of course, I’m going to share my thoughts about children and language learning that will naturally bring Dr. Peter Gray’s ideas to mind.

To talk about children and language learning, I’m going to break this into three sections or anecdotes: a little about my personal experience learning foreign languages, the experience of my daughter growing up as a bilingual speaker, and my experience teaching children a foreign language.

Deschooling & Learning a Language As a Student

Finding the Spark

Irony has it that being a parent or teaching children has always positively made me become a child again, including revisiting my memories and returning to the same shoes I once wore. This is essential for me to remember and anticipate the range of emotions children will all experience.

In the middle of all of that, I try to find that spark of curiosity and give it more oxygen. So, let me take you back a little as I reflect on when and how languages sparked my curiosity and how that grew into a life-long learning process and passion.

I’m now going back to my earliest memories when my excitement in languages first began. I felt compelled inside to explore and learn foreign languages, not just one language.

I lived in a neighborhood of English and Spanish people, and I was babysat in an exclusively Spanish-speaking household when I was four. However, at six years old, I had the real “ah-ha!” moment that would forever point my mind towards languages and linguistic anthropology later.

The "Ah-Ha" Moment

That particular moment was when my grandmother gave me my first encyclopedia, a slightly shabby, well-worn but practical Grolier’s Children’s Encyclopedia, aka the Book of Knowledge.

Don’t you love how grandmothers don’t leave much to waste?

As a six-year-old who thought the world revolved around him, I naturally flipped to the L’s to look for my name. Surely it would be there. And I never found it because the first entry of the L’s was Languages.

On some level, this was play. It was fun. It was accessible, and therefore I was hooked.

This moment remains one of my earliest and most cherished memories, one that combines the impact of a humble gift from a loved one that would profoundly change my worldview.

A Small, Small World

I remember seeing the 1940s-styled hand-drawn examples of a girl, a boy, a ball, a bear, a horse, and a house. Then there were the definitions in various languages by the images that offered an easy comparison of Chinese, Dutch, English, French, German, and Spanish.

I remember wondering about the way other children may see or think about their world. I was trying to relate. I was fascinated. "It's a small world after all," right?

Of course, this was a children’s encyclopedia, so it was not meant to be a lesson. There were no endpoints but rather an exciting place to start. This is a crucial point about children and language learning I want to make.

We can never be sure what will grab the curiosity of a young mind and turn on that light for them. Today that might be a YouTube channel or popular language application or website. For me, it was an old, musty book on my birthday. What will tomorrow bring?

A Parent's Experience of Language Learning & Home Schooling

Traditional Schooling vs. Homeschooling

This brings me to the following anecdote about our daughter as I put my "parent cap" on. As a bicultural child–mind you, this was by choice, and for a purpose, our daughter has grown up as a bilingual speaker.

It would have been straightforward for us to consign her to local expectations (or social pressures) and rely on the schooling in Japan to do what it openly claims to be there for building Japanese citizens.

But we knew this would have significantly narrowed the scope of our daughter’s outlook on life, to say nothing about the opportunities she could see and reach for in her future.

Instead of formal schooling, we wanted her to have a world schooling experience.

As a parent, I realized why the Cherokee side of my family wanted to expose me as much as they could to Cherokee culture when I was young. They wanted me to see and appreciate my roots as much as possible despite the more overt acculturation I was experiencing.

Going Back to My Roots

Today, this has become a learning partnership for my daughter and me as we are both studying the Cherokee language. Where Japanese and English have come to her naturally, Cherokee has been a fun and healthy challenge as much as any other new or foreign language could be.

Practically speaking, she does not need it, but her curiosity for this culture and interest in learning the language pressed her onward.

I know many families traveling the world will read this, and all I can say is your children must have a lot of curiosity for languages, at least for practical purposes.

It may not be apparent where the extrinsic/intrinsic line is, but the interest is nonetheless there. We should look at this as a reserve because we need to realize curiosity can be finite.

Motivation can be limited or can come and go. We must foster the best ways to sustain that curiosity and desire to learn by being active agents of resources for our children.

Motivation Comes From Many Places

As a child, one of the most effective forms of motivation for learning another language came from my Cherokee side of the family.

This taught me a valuable lesson.

It was never forced, and oddly, the difficult-to-follow inside jokes they often shared only drove me more to learn!

For our daughter, it is a part of being in touch with her roots as she matures and defines who she is and what she values.

What interests your child's language learning?

We do need to repeat these questions and tune back in on the roots of our children's curiosity in the learning experiences they gravitate to. Not only is it critical to think about what interests their learning, but it is also essential to take time to dwell on the heart and vitality of what grabs the interest of our children.

As they grow and mature, the interaction between that interest-grabbing factor and how our children see themselves and their world will change. Observing that change is fundamental so we can change along with them.

Language Learning in Education As a Teacher

Watching and Learning

My humble slice of reality and my experience teaching children a foreign language (primarily ESL/EFL) have only illustrated for me the amazing fluidity between wearing a student's hat, a parent's hat, and a teacher's hat moment to moment.

For example, at once, you could be playing a game with students while wearing a student's hat, then suddenly your teacher's hat appears as an unexpected and natural turn in the round allows a teachable, replicable piece of language to be added, used, or reviewed, all under the radar of students who are playing.

I will talk more about playing with language, but let me begin with another perspective builder. Let's treat learning a language the same as learning any musical instrument, especially the one you were born with, your voice.

Practice Makes Perfect

Like music, learning a foreign language is a heavy input/output exercise. This doesn't mean foreign language learners have to be balanced all the time, and by heavy, I don't mean weighty, but that the more that goes in, the more that will eventually come out.

Your voice is a muscle, and exercising it is as necessary as using your fingers on a suitably weighted keyboard. But that isn't easy for many students to do.

I have had students who were selectively mute for years, never speaking more than a whisper but were nonetheless very engaged listeners and readers. Then, finally, one fine spring day, they talked.

I remember those moments very well when I had to fight with myself not to overreact with joy as I knew a business-as-usual environment was key for these students, especially in front of others. I knew those students wanted to be given the same praise and support as the others—nothing more, nothing less.

The input/output process can look very different for each learner. Some prefer grabbing chunks of language and laying off literacy or reading. And some want to reserve speaking for another time when they are sure of themselves.

That said, putting the proverbial bow on the violin string and making a sound is eventually needed. On that note–pun not meant, if building musical ability can mean listening to music teachers or musicians, doing your scales, and learning solfege, then building language ability is no different.

Professional musicians still do scales and arpeggios, and likewise, language learners will have to face the reality that practice and repetition for basic repeating phrases are vital for becoming fluent.

More Than Just The End Goal

About fluency, I would say it is great to aim for becoming fluent, but this is a long-game goal, right?

If we break down this idea of "becoming fluent" and ignore how subjective "fluent" can be, we can have more fun while enjoying the successes of smaller, more meaningful, and relevant incremental goal-setting.

Breaking the learning process into more digestible parts collectively leads to fluency, again, in whatever manner that appears. We need short-game thinking that leads to short-game winning.

The pathway to fluency for a student who lived in North America for three years will be very different for a student who has never left Japan. And the pathway for another student in Japan joining a GCSE-accredited international school will need yet another pathway.

What these paths and incremental steps look like for each student will vary, so the burden is on all of us to see and recognize them. But let's get back to the fun part as I close my thoughts. How do we play with languages?

The Power of Play

Like many of you have done, I have also watched videos with Peter Gray and Sir Ken Robinson discussing the importance of play and imagination.

The images of children kicking a ball together, tumbling together, playing on a slide together seem entirely fitting when we think about play. But what about words? Phrases? How can children play with languages? How can they kick words around, or tumble with chunks of language?

Well, they can.

I've seen this in the classroom, and it is mind-blowing and fun to observe. Children have that fantastic ability for free association where everything begins in their minds. Before reaching for any cardboard and duct tape to solve some problem, they would have first conceptualized the solution.

So, yes, in case anyone wondered, language and play go wonderfully together.

Setting Our Children Up For Success

Teachers and parents alike share a responsibility to work together so children can have fun and grow with a language, even adopting it as a life-long learning experience that is rewarding.

From a teacher's (and parent's) perspective, the bigger wall is reserved for us to (re)learn how to engage with our free association so we can see that which others do not.

We need to recognize and seize opportunities for play and engagement that lead to those incremental successes. And as we look back, we can realize how curious it is for a simple encyclopedia, an app, or the warning label on a coffee lid to be the catalyst that led to rich language learning experiences.

Meta description: Learning new languages opens up a world of opportunity and new experiences for children. Here's Len's take on it.

Twitter: Learning a language is a beautiful and complex experience that enriches any child's education. Len shares his experiences as a teacher, a student, and a parent.