10 Ways to Help Your Child Learn English
As a parent, you may not realise how much you can do to support your children in learning English.
That’s the case even if they’re in their teens. When they’re younger, it can seem easier to introduce languages to them, whether that’s just through talking to them, or through introducing a new toy that ‘speaks’ only in the target language. But there’s a great deal you can do to help and support older children in learning languages that goes beyond practising verb endings with them or helping them with their homework.
In this article, we’ve taken a look at how you can help your teenage child learn English in fun, low-stress ways. We’ve focused on tips that don’t make it feel like you’re pressuring them to succeed, which is particularly counterproductive when learning a language, where confidence and a lack of self-consciousness can make a big difference to progress. While we’ve focused primarily on older children, there are tips here that you may find useful for younger children as well – or even for adult learning.
1. Get them English versions of their favourite books
If reading in English is something your child sees as a chore, an easy way to make it more fun for them is to get them their favourite books in English. A remarkable number of popular favourites have been translated, and it may well be that their favourite book was actually written in English originally. For example, of the current top ten bestsellers in young adult fiction on German Amazon, four were translated from English – including, of course, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Reading their favourites in English doesn’t just mean that they’re going to be more interested in the story; it also makes the act of reading in a foreign language much easier. It means that if there’s some vocabulary that they don’t understand, they won’t need to keep running for the dictionary – they’ll be more easily able to work it out from context. Reading a book in a foreign language can be frustrating, especially if a misunderstanding leads you to lose the thread of the plot, but when it’s a book that you already know well, it becomes a lot more painless. It’s even better if they then get hooked on reading a series that was originally in English – reading in a foreign language might seem like a reasonable exchange for getting to read the book before it appears in translation.
2. Learn a language alongside them
If you’re reading this article, chances are your own English is already pretty good, and trying to improve it alongside your child might end up being disheartening rather than encouraging. But it can be helpful to learn a different language, so that’s you’re learning at the same rate – or your child ends up out-pacing you, which can be gratifying for them. You can compare the vocabulary and structure of the different languages that you’re learning, set each other challenges and generally turn the process of language-learning into a fun and slightly competitive activity, rather than a chore.
There’s nothing that will pile on the pressure like saying that you’re learning another language in order to support your child, though, so keep that to yourself. This tip is best followed if learning another language is something that you were planning on doing anyway, with learning alongside your child being the thing that spurs you into action. Other European languages such as German, French, Dutch and Spanish are likely to be particularly complementary choices, and easier for an English speaker to pick up.
3. Do easy tasks in English and use English for straightforward things
Requiring your child to talk to you in English at set times – such as mealtimes – is a popular tip, but that can feel stressful for them, both in terms of the pressure to do well and the frustration if they struggle to express themselves fully. At earlier learning stages, they might not have enough vocabulary to respond properly, so you end up following a textbook conversation rather than communicating meaningfully. That’s the opposite of making learning a language fun.
What you can do that’s much lower pressure is use English for really straightforward things. For instance, basic instructions that don’t require a response, or only need a yes or no answer, can be communicated in English. That’s things like “I’m going shopping, would you like to come with me?” or “your grandma is coming round later” – statements that use introductory vocabulary and therefore can easily be understood. That way, they’re still listening to English being spoken and therefore learning, but it’s not going to be hard work for them. Think about it like practising driving: you wouldn’t take them on the motorway and insist they manage, but you might let them practise by driving you down quiet roads to the shops.
Once they’ve gained a little more vocabulary, you can try out doing straightforward tasks in English as well, such as cooking or playing sports. These tasks involve a relatively limited range of vocabulary that you could get into the habit of saying in English, and your child could respond to you in English or in their native language as suits them best.
4. Don’t discourage them from learning other languages
If English is their top priority – and it’s arguably the most useful foreign language to learn for a significant portion of the world’s population – you might think of other foreign languages as a distraction, and encourage your child to focus on their English. But that’s a bad plan, because learning other languages as well can actually be beneficial for your child’s English. It’s true regardless of how old they are.
Yes, students learning multiple languages at the same time will sometimes confuse vocabulary, or – if they’re from the same language group – end up speaking an odd melange of the two from time to time. But having three or more languages will also help them compare how the languages are structured; for instance, there’s nothing like knowing English, German and Latin for a really thorough understanding of how cases work. And if their native language is also an Indo-European one, then learning an unrelated language like Mandarin Chinese will make English seem a lot easier by comparison.
5. Set technology, such as games consoles, to English
Admittedly, following this tip is a good way to ensure that your child’s English-language vocabulary leans more towards ‘level up’ and ‘game over’ than the kind of thing that might be useful in their future career, but any practice is good practice, and switching technology into English is a low-pressure way to surround your child with the language. It may well be that some items of technology default to English anyway, so you won’t have to put much effort into changing them.
If your child isn’t a big gamer, other ideas include social media accounts like Facebook or even their own mobile phone, if they’re confident enough that they’ll still be able to understand anything. The biggest commitment would be switching over something like a laptop, but unless they’re already familiar with specialist terms in English, that can be more of a challenge.
6. Don’t worry too much about their mistakes
The best way to make your child never want to speak English again is to tell them every mistake that they make. As we’ve already noted, self-consciousness is fatal to learning languages, and constantly watching themselves for minor mistakes is a great way to make them feel deeply self-conscious. After all, while the ultimate goal might be flawless, fluent English, there aren’t many native speakers whose English is completely with mistakes; it’s better to prioritise your child being able to communicate confidently and fluently, rather than being able to say a much smaller range of things with no errors.
So what should you do if there’s a big mistake that they keep making? One approach – which you should agree with them in advance – is to pick up on one mistake every week. This helps them improve without giving the impression that they’re making so many mistakes they should just give up.
7. Focus on vocabulary, not grammar
If you’re going to try to play a role in teaching them English alongside what they learn at school, it’s best to focus on teaching them vocabulary rather than grammar. For one, this is because grammar is much more easily and effectively taught in a classroom, rather than you trying to explain what modal verbs are while you’re doing the washing up. For another, it’s because their schoolteacher is probably teaching them grammar according to a curriculum that has been carefully laid out; you don’t want to confuse them.
But the main reason is that learning grammar helps you communicate better, but learning vocabulary helps you communicate more. If you’d like to buy four salted caramel truffles, knowing how to construct a perfect sentence based on “I would like” is not going to help you if you don’t know the word for “truffle”. Being able to say “four caramel truffle”, even if you mess up the plural, will result in chocolate coming your way. And being able to communicate more is the key to making learning a foreign language more useful and more fun.
8. Don’t be afraid to mix English with their first language
If you’re trying to get a baby to grow up bilingual, it’s a good idea to avoid mixing two languages; it’s even a good idea to ensure that one person only speaks one language to them, while another speaks the other. But by the time we’re teenagers, we’re not so easily confused. Yes, blending two new languages is a very bad idea that can only lead to confusion, but they’re not going to struggle to differentiate their own native language and English at this stage.
This matters because sometimes, blending languages together can be a lot of fun and can make learning them easier. Speaking ‘franglais’ is a popular occupation for British schoolchildren, but even though les sentences comme cette one may sound ridicule, that’s a low-effort way to practise vocabulary and still convey your meaning if there are some things you don’t know how to say in the target language.
9. Watch English-language TV and films with them
Watching films and TV in English is a great way to learn while also enjoying yourself, and that applies especially to teenagers. If their English isn’t yet good enough to follow the plot, you could watch things in English, but with subtitles in your native language. Once that’s too easy, switch the subtitles into English as well – which gives your child the opportunity to figure out what’s being said twice over. And once that’s too easy, lose the subtitles altogether. Buying films and TV shows on TV should make all of this quite straightforward, especially if they’ve been dubbed from English in the first place.
Remember that enjoying themselves while surrounded with English is the priority; if they’re having to struggle to understand what’s going on, it defeats the point. As with books, choosing their favourite films and shows can help, though it can also be disconcerting to hear a favourite actor suddenly speaking in an entirely different voice.
10. Send them to a summer school
Don’t be deceived by the term ‘summer school’; this can also be a relaxed and enjoyable way to learn English. The English-language element could be in the form of structured classes, or, if their language skills are advanced enough, they might choose to study a different course altogether, taught in English by a teacher sympathetic to the needs of students who have English as a second language.
Either way, if the summer school is based in an English-speaking country, the time spent outside of classes with new-found friends will require your child to speak English in order to get along; and that’s a powerful motivation. Being self-conscious about making mistakes soon falls by the wayside in favour of having a good time – so by the time your child gets home, they’ll be using English with confidence, perhaps even to stay in touch with brand-new friends from the other side of the globe.