Learning a foreign language: Tips for expat parents

October 10, 2016

Here, we take a look at how expats parents can prepare themselves and their children for this challenge and provide some tips for successfully mastering the local lingo.

In general, the younger your children are the easier it will be for them to pick up a foreign language. However, if your children are older, learning a new language may be more difficult for them. They will be joining school at an age where they are expected to participate fully in class and attain a high academic standard. In short, older children will be required to master a new language more quickly.

Ideally you should begin learning a foreign language with your children before you leave your home country. Both you and your children will be better prepared for the initial challenges you will face in your new country and will find it easier to adjust to moving overseas and settle in faster, if you can attempt conversing in the language of your host country. 

Begin by practicing common phrases with your children, use a phrasebook or picture dictionary. Read children's books and comic books in the foreign language, many expat parents find using school books in your new language, which are aimed at four to eight year olds, an excellent aid to getting a basic grasp of the language.

Use this as an opportunity to learn the language alongside your child, if your child hears you speaking the new language, they will be more willing to learn it too. 

If you intend staying in your host country for a long period of time, be aware that your children’s language skills may quickly outpace your own. This can lead and frustration with everyday activities such as homework, so it is vital that expat parents be as invested in learning the language of their host country as their children are.
Although private language lessons may be expensive, they are a sound investment as intensive one to one learning can result in you and your children mastering a foreign language much more quickly. Receiving tuition as a family will allow you to practice your new language skills in a ‘safe’ environment, where you will feel less self-conscious about making mistakes.

If you began your private lessons before leaving your home country, continue them when you settle in your new destination. Sign up for language classes in your new country, as these will provide an excellent source for meeting people in the same situation as you, with whom you can practice your developing language skills.
Continue this learning at home with the assistance of language DVDs and audio books. Watch your children’s favourite movies in the foreign language, you and your children will already be familiar with the story and will therefore understand the context, but you will be absorbing the movie in the language of your host country.

Your local library in your new destination will be an excellent source for movies and audio books.
Choosing the right school for expat children is a big decision, particularly if the education system and syllabus is unfamiliar. Older children in particular may find the transition into their new school difficult, with language barriers presenting one of their greatest challenges.

Consider an international school, where the teachers will be more aware of integration issues expat children will face, and the pupils will be familiar with your child’s experience and background.

For younger children there will be various playschool, nursery and Montessori options, where your children will quickly develop a foreign language. These children will have developed their fluency in the language of their host country sufficiently by the time they reach elementary school age, and will therefore be better equipped to join a local school.
Many expats will crave the familiarity of home, and may feel more comfortable spending a lot of their time with fellow expats. However, when it comes to learning the language of your host country, it will be more beneficial to immerse yourself in the local culture and form social bonds with the local population.

Forming friendships with native speakers and practicing your language skills with them, will help you to improve your fluency in a comfortable environment where you will be more inclined to take risks and less fearful of making mistakes.

Ensure that your children also participate in developing social connections with their peers.  Arrange play dates where you encourage the children to converse with one another in their new language. 
For many expats an issue arises when their child becomes so adept and proficient in their new language, that it becomes their core language and their skills in the language of their home country diminish.

Depending on how long you plan to stay in your host country, this may prove to be an issue. For expat children, conversations in their native language may be limited to phone calls to relatives at home, or routine conversations with you. They may have very little opportunity to practice reading or writing in their native language. 

It is important to remain aware of this issue, and take remedial action if you feel your child’s native language skills are not as well developed as they should be.

Learning a foreign language can be one of the greatest assets  your family will  gain while living overseas, it also presents one of the greatest assets for you and your children in the long-term. 

Take every opportunity to learn the language of your host country, be relaxed, make learning fun and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. 
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