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Three tips for kids learning a foreign language

Three tips for kids learning a foreign language

My son is seven years old, and through various twists of fate he has attended an English language public school and a French immersion public school Canada, and now attends a German/English bilingual private school in Germany. We’ve gone through the language/school transition twice now, both with a major international move and without. While I’m not a speech pathologist, a teacher, or a child psychologist, I have gone through this as a parent a couple of times now. As we adjust to our new life in Germany, I was struck by how many similarities there are between our time settling in to French immersion school and German school.

Here are three things we’ve learned, living through this major change twice now.

3 tips for kids learning a foreign language

Ease into it.

If you have a few months to prepare, use them. Ask the school your child will be attending for some tips and resources in the target language. Download game-like apps to give your child a feel for the vocabulary (we love Gus on the Go in particular). Check the Netflix options for shows in the target language, but look for ones a few age levels younger so the speech is simpler. It’s ideal if it is a show your child likes and knows well already. Pinterest is great for language resources, and so is YouTube (here is my French immersion resources board, and my Learning German board). Obviously don’t throw it all in there at once, but try something every couple of days.

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Support, but don’t push it.

Once they start school, it’s tempting to try and speak to them in the target language (if you know it), or expect them to come home with new vocab every day. Don’t forget how exhausting learning a new language is – and if your child is staring in a new school in an immersion situation, they’re doing a new job in a new language too. Keep things as mellow and predictable as you can at home, and keep the extra curricular activities to a minimum until they settle in. Though, if there’s an activity they really love and feel confident doing, definitely go for that. Learning a new language can be a real knock to even confident kids, so anything that bolsters the ego is terrific.

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Give it time. Lots of time.

It may seem like they will never speak the language, or that nothing is going in, but be patient. With our son, it takes about six months before little words and phrases start popping out at random. If you can, spend some time learning the language too if you don’t already speak it, and ask them to help you. Kids love teaching their parents something. If you’re really concerned nothing is sticking, talk to their teacher. I really recommend waiting at least six months though – and know that speaking the language is one of the last things to come.

Have you made a language transition with your children? Any tips to share?

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Language learning for kids and adults

Cute bookshop in Heidelberg

We originally only spoke English in our family, along with some French because we’re Canadian. Several years ago, we moved to southern Germany near the French border, and all of a sudden, languages became very, very important. I’ve since learned a lot about what helps with language learning and I’ve outlined what’s worked for both my husband and I as adults, and our son, below.

When I first wrote this post, we were just about to move to Germany. Now that we’ve lived here for nearly five years, I wanted to update you on what has worked and what hasn’t for seriously learning another language.

Gus on the Go app in French

Language learning for kids

First of all, let’s talk about kids learning another language. Before we moved to Germany, our nearly seven year old had been in French immersion, so his reading and writing education had been entirely in French so far. He spoke quite well, and understood loads. We threw him in the deep end when we arrived in Germany and he started at bilingual school – though it turned out bilingual there meant more like 70% German. His first teacher did not speak much English. He’s now five years in, and is around a level C1/C2. The language he speaks with his friends is German, and occasionally when he plays online with English speaking friends, he does an excellent UN translator thing of translating back and forth while playing video games. I won’t lie, it was rocky there for awhile, and the nitty-gritty elements of German grammar are still a bit of a battle at school. Next year, he begins taking French in school as well.

Strategies that helped my son learn

None of these little tools will replace speaking the language regularly or school in that language, but they all helped a bit.

We are huge fans of the app for young kids, Gus on the Go. It’s available in 30 languages, and they do a great job of helping kids learn early vocabulary. There’s a next level app called Gus on the Go Stories now for French, Spanish, Greek, and Hebrew. These apps were developed by a lovely multilingual family, and we’ve been using and recommending them for years. On their website, they have lots of free language printables too.

Other strategies for helping our son with learning German included:

  • Putting subtitles on any TV shows or films he watched, and letting him watch a bit more if it was in German
  • Finding comics he liked in German
  • Listening to audiobooks in German, often of stories he already knew so he had some context
  • Suggesting he ‘help’ us with our German reading (which did actually help, by the way)
Der Die Das, my favourite German article flashcard app
Der Die Das, my favourite German article flashcard app

Language learning for adults

My husband and I tried loads of apps, including Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Busuu. If I’m completely honest, it did not prepare us as well as we had hoped for living in Germany. Nothing really compares to a proper language class, and if you’re looking to learn seriously to use it in daily life, work, or school, you will need to go beyond apps. I will say apps are helpful as a supplement to your class learning when it comes to things like flashcards and drilling specific elements that you can’t remember (*cough* German articles *cough*) – the screenshot above is from the app I use called Der Die Das.

There is an in-between world of podcasts, and upon reflection German Pod 101 was more helpful than the hours I spent on Duolingo. You want to find a podcast/audio lesson series that uses native speakers so you’re not learning wonky pronunciation that you will have to unlearn later.

When we arrived in Germany, we had a set number of private language lessons with Berlitz, and those were great. If you’re relocating through an employer, definitely negotiate language lessons as part of your package, for both you and your partner. However, it was too pricey to continue on our own. I looked around for German classes, but in our small town there wasn’t anything that didn’t require a commitment of full-day or half-day classes every weekday. I found Lingoda online, and they have been without a doubt the best way of learning a language when you want flexible classes but still need to properly learn. I wrote an in-depth review of my experience with Lingoda. Full disclosure: after writing that review, Lingoda contacted me to write blog posts for them about language learning, for which I get paid and a bonus of some free lessons, but I also still pay my monthly fee so I can do more. Take that how you will! There are other companies taking this approach now, and I think it’s a good one as we’re all more used to having conversations online. Look for small class sizes and native-speaking teachers.

My German singalong playlist on Spotify
My German playlist on Spotify

Strategies that have worked for me

You really have to approach learning a language as a continual process, rather than something with an endpoint, as well as recognising there will be times you get more intense about it, and times you let it slide. It’s fine. I’ve learned that rounding out my language learning by approaching it from different angles has made it easier to keep at least some language learning going even when I haven’t booked a class in awhile.

  • Make a playlist of songs in your target language, and learn the lyrics – SING ALONG – this has helped my pronunciation more than anything else (here is my ever-evolving German singalong playlist, for example)
  • Find a good TV series or two in your target language – not dubbed, but written and filmed in your target language, that way you will get actual slang and what people really say, it’s fine if you pause it every 20 seconds to look something up, you will get it eventually
  • If you’re not ready for that, start with films and TV you know in your language dubbed into your target language, and watch with the subtitles (not in English) – start with kids shows if adult stuff is too quick, but I find action films are pretty simple when it comes to dialogue
  • Start following social accounts in your target language – language learning accounts if you like, but also just regular people you would normally follow – if that’s chefs or costumers, whatever, just find the relative hashtags in your target language
  • Find comics or magazines, something with lots of visual cues, in your target language, again look for subjects you’re interested in anyway

In the end, learning a language takes effort, and you need to put the effort in yourself. No app, lesson plan or music playlist will magically make another language appear in your brain fully formed – no matter how much I wish I could zap that German adjective declension straight into my grey matter. I also want to say here that you can definitely do it, don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good at languages or some crap like that. It’s a skill, like slicing onions quickly or woodworking. You learn it, step by step. Some methods work well for some people and some don’t, so keep trying things until you find something, or a combination of things, that works for you.

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A really good paper airplane book

A really good paper airplane book

This post contains affiliate links, this means when you click through and purchase, I receive a fee. This helps defray the cost of maintaining this blog. 

paper airplane book

If you’ve got a small child between 3 and, well, I’m not sure there’s an upper age limit here, paper airplane construction becomes a critical life skill. I wrote about a great online resource for paper airplane plans here, and it’s one of my most popular posts. As my son’s appetite for paper airplanes only grows, I decided to invest in an actual book. The [amazon_link id=”0761143831″ target=”_blank” ]World Record Paper Airplane Book[/amazon_link] is a pretty good one.

Along with plans for many different types of planes, there are pages to cut out that produces really cool looking planes, and a hangar to park them on. There is also many pages of seriously deep information into why each model flies and how, discussions of drag and lift. So if you have an older child who is into Knowing Everything, this is great. You can safely ignore those chapters otherwise.

I particularly liked the troubleshooting tips that go along with each plane model. After you’ve finished following along with the clear diagrams, they provide some help for diving planes, planes that go up quickly and then dive, or veer in a particular direction. This is handy when your child wails, ‘Mummy! This plane DOES NOT WORK.’

What are your best paper airplane resources?

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Three Great Problem-solving iPad Games for kids

Three Great Problem-solving iPad Games for kids

One of my son’s favourite type of iPad game is the well-designed problem solver. It’s not something he gets jump-up-and-down excited about, but they are the ones with staying power.

Our favourites right now:

Monument Valley

Walk a small girl through an Escher-like landscape, twisting and turning pieces of the structures to reveal new pathways. It really challenges ideas about up and down, directions and perspective. There’s a beautiful soundtrack that draws you in, as well as a flock of mysterious birds that appear throughout the level. Gorgeous game that’s won many awards for good reason. My son has played this one through countless times. Monument Valley game by ustwo

 

Odd Bot Out

How Martin Magni, the indie developer behind Odd Bot Out, managed to imbue a single block with an eyeball and legs with a personality, I don’t know. But my son loves this one. You walk your block bot around obstacles using switches, cables, other bots, and magnetic blocks to finish each level. The difficulty doesn’t ramp up too quickly, which is a failure of so many of the other problem-solving games we’ve tried, so my 5 year old has been playing this one for weeks. Odd Bot Out by Martin Magni

 

Gesundheit!

This one appealed to my five year old right away, in that the whole premise is sneaking around obstacles and distracting monsters by sneezing snot they chase after and eat. That sounds unbelievably disgusting, but somehow the cute animation style makes it hilarious and not all that gross (really). The tinkly, tweepop soundtrack makes a nice change from your average game music too. Where does the problem solving come in? It’s all about bouncing snot off walls at certain angles, planning your route, and patience. Gesundheit! game by Matt Hammill

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Robotics and electronics for kids: where to start

Robotics and electronics for kids: where to start

robotics-text

Wouldn’t it be cool to ask your child: ’Do you want to build a robot that feeds your fish?’

The answer is clearly yes, but that’s going to take a degree in engineering and a large workshop full of tools you don’t have to sort out isn’t it? Actually, no.

There’s been a cool scene brewing out there, sometimes referred to as ‘maker culture’, all about getting down to brass tacks and building something cool. Parents have been at the forefront –  making neat stuff with and for their kids. I’m sure you’ve done the same, really, whether it’s involving your kids in baking cookies, feeding the chickens, gardening, crocheting, tie-dying, and whatever else you happen to know about. This particular corner of the maker universe is all about electronics, coding, robotics, and wearable technology.

What I find fascinating about this whole scene is the positivity. There are loads of companies focused on enabling everyone to build Cool Stuff. The sheer volume of creativity is stunning. Frozen cosplay? Totally, here are 27 tutorials on everything from Elsa’s tiara to using bits of glass to truly capture the idea of that glittery cape. Light up your shoes with flexible LEDs? Sure. Stitch lights and sensors into your skirt so it lights up when you move? Yep.

If you’re looking to get started in the world of electronic stuff, there are a couple routes to take. Key things to know here: as the supervising adult, you will have to help if your child is younger than about 8 or 9, but my 5 year old is perfectly able to get in there and do a project with adult assistance. You don’t need any previous electronics or coding experience to do these beginner steps. The documentation and videos that go with these kits are excellent and easy to follow.

There two main companies that make beginner kits for kids: Snap Circuits and littleBits.

Snap Circuits is electrical engineering for kids. You get a basic breadboard (that flat thing you attach wires and components to) and things like resistors, LEDs, and sound-producing components. The Snap Circuits Jr kit includes 100 different experiments to build, including a doorbell, flying saucer, and alarm. Everything is in plastic holders, and it requires no additional tools. Snap Circuits is all about the technical elements of electronics: how parallel circuits work, how resistors work, that kind of thing. The basic 100 experiments kit costs $30.

littleBits, however, is more like programming for kids. Each piece snaps to another, which you can attach to a person, a playdough sculpture, a LEGO car, a windmill made of craft sticks… really anything. The base kit includes things like a DC motor, a pressure sensor, a light sensor, and a bright LED. It’s much more 3D than the Snap Circuits, and would be a good entry point into robotics. However, it’s more expensive. The littleBits base kit is $100 US, and it’s a challenge to get in Canada without paying their (starting at) $37 shipping charges. It seems expensive when you think of it as a toy, but when viewed as a beginner robotics kit, it seems more reasonable.

If you have older children who are really keen, the world of Arduino is like peeking into Narnia through the wardrobe. This is where you get into the really cool wearable tech, complicated robotics, and, it should be said, requirements for more tools. Though all you really need to start out is a $10 wire stripper. Arduino is an open-source electronics platform that was designed to make building robots and things like that easier for hobbyists. There are countless books, blogs, instructions, and plans out there for incredible things you can build with Arduino components. Start with the Arduino site, then move on to Make: magazine, and adafruit to see what’s possible.

Electronics shops sell Arduino kits and components, and it’s easier to find in Canada than littleBits. The Official Arduino Starter Kit is about $125, and includes instructions (and all the bits) for projects like a light theremin, a lamp that responds to touch, a colour-mixing lamp, and a motorized pinwheel. It does require some basic coding, so this wouldn’t be very fun for kids much younger than 12. The sky’s the limit with additional components. You can find cheaper base kits at about $50, and if you know exactly what you want, you can buy the Arduino microprocessor itself for about $30. However, I can’t be held responsible if you’re pricing out 3D printers by next Christmas.

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