Kids learn to speak their native tongue without any formal lessons. And it doesn’t need to be any different with learning a second language; or how to teach a child to read for that matter.
The better way of describing the process is acquiring a second language. And the way you do it is by exposing them to the language – books, music, artwork, TV shows, films.
This is possible even if you are not a native speaker in the particular language. If need be, hiring a native speaker to just come and spend time with your child, in a fun, unpressured environment would be a great approach.
They might actually be a teacher. That’s okay. So it would be good to stress to them that you would prefer they just play and spend time with your child.
That is, take away the pressure of expectation from the sessions.
Think of helpers who live with a family in a foreign country. The children of these families often – not always – naturally pick up the ability to communicate with the helper in their own language.
Now, if you are a native speaker then all you need to do is also just play with them.
How do I know?
Because my Turkish daughter, Asya, learned English by herself in exactly this way.
We cannot homeschool her because it is illegal in Turkey. But we have still applied many principles to how we interact with our daughter and how + what she learns.
Let me give you an example.
She is actually my step-daughter. We got to know each other when she was four years old (a little over seven years ago). She didn’t know a word of English. I didn’t know a word of Turkish.
Before we even met face-to-face, I made two decisions:
- I would always speak English with her (even if I knew how to say something in Turkish, which I was able to do quite quickly);
- I would never try to sit down and do a “lesson” with her or even to teach a little grammar, for example.
For the 1st three years, apart from pockets here and there, she was responding and speaking to me in Turkish. At first, she wasn’t understanding then even as she begun to, her confidence to try to speak was still low.
But I persisted only speaking English with her.
During the 4th + 5th years, her understanding and speaking improved a lot. But she still resisted quite strongly.
It was in this 2-year period that I experienced pangs of doubt & frustration.
Doubt because I thought if she continues being stubborn there is always a chance that her mind wouldn’t latch onto English as something natural before puberty, like a native speaker.
It would have been a great shame.
Frustration because I perceived her sometimes not to be making enough of an effort, as if she didn’t realize the opportunity she had or taking it for granted; that is, English would be a great asset to have as a non-native speaker.
Selfishly, in my mind, I was sacrificing hundreds of hours of potential Turkish speaking practice. And at the same time, I was becoming an increasingly effective teacher of English as a second language in a prominent private school. The students and their parents loved me and appreciated how much I was helping.
But all my step-daughter needed was time.
I’m thankful I had enough perspective to give her that.
For whatever reason, she wasn’t emotionally ready yet to be openly practicing in front of us, which is necessary for learning a second language.
That is, making mistakes in front of others.
In the first fifteen months of the Covid-19 pandemic, she spent all her time at home and her speaking ability + confidence sky-rocketed.
I still have never “taught” her anything.
In fact, she has become more active with her own learning. For example, she is absorbed in DuoLingo, she makes posters and brochures on Canva, and she sings along to pop music in English.
Most importantly, unprompted, she said something recently which delighted me:
“Speaking English is fun!”
I was all too familiar with students at my school who had had English lessons pushed down their throats since they were four years old. It seemed like this had completely sucked the fun out of what should have been an exciting adventure. That is, making weird sounds that when you put them together in the right way actually mean something – it’s crazy!
Anyway, I was happy with how Asya felt about speaking English. And, of course, happy for her that she could communicate with anyone in the language. It was and is a joy to witness.
Approaching challenges indirectly gives children the necessary time + space.
I have never been Asya’s “teacher”. And I never tried to be.
I’m grateful I trusted her natural self-directed learning process and development, which is the same for any child when they are not force-fed lesson after lesson before they are ready.