Bring the World to Your Children Without Leaving the Country

foreign language, world cultures, learning languages, internationalGet your kids to appreciate other cultures and learning foreign languages.

This guest post is by Susanna Zaraysky, polyglot author of Language is Music, a guide on how to learn foreign languages using music and the media.

Let’s face it, there’s a disconnect between classroom foreign language classes and the beauty of being multilingual and the real-world demands for language knowledge. Memorizing verb conjugation charts can take the spice out of any language, no matter how enthusiastic one is from the onset.

Even if your child currently doesn’t envision a life spent doing business abroad, foreign language knowledge is a plus. In the US, about 20% of the population (according to the US Census) speaks another language at home. Politicians resurrect their high school Spanish to do campaign ads in Spanish. In the case of the 2006 California Democratic Governor Primary, the candidates found relatives who spoke Chinese to do ads for them. Businesses target their advertisements for the ethnic media.

Despite the international nature of many countries like the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, young students (and their parents) often miss the value in learning languages and exposing themselves to other cultures.

Let me be clear about why learning languages is important: career opportunities, traveling the world with ease, being able to relate to people who are different, learning about the world, and expanding one’s horizons.

Given the already paltry foreign language offerings in schools and the education budget cuts in the US, UK and other countries, the responsibility is on you, the parent, to educate your child about the world. Don’t wait for the schools to do it. If my parents hadn’t taught my sister and I geography, I’d be at pains to find my native country of Russia (the largest one in the world) on the map. Depressing, but true. The US school system fails in teaching students geography, world history and languages.

Don’t worry. Even if you’re no polyglot yourself or world geography whiz, you can still make your kid a global citizen. You don’t have to pay for an expensive study abroad program for your child to learn Spanish or other languages, you can find resources close to home.

Here are some ways how to bring the world to your child, without leaving your home area.

1. Expose your child to the sounds of other languages.

The first element of language learning is to listen to the target language to get used to the sounds and melody of the language. It was easy for me to pick up Spanish because I had grown up in California and had heard a lot of Spanish around me. Many Californians and other people living in states with large Hispanic populations learn some Spanish in high school and speak with heavy American accents and can’t roll their r’s. Why? Because they weren’t paying attention to the Spanish around them.  Maybe they heard it as background noise instead of focusing in on the new sounds of the language, its rhythm and melody. 

Get your kids to hear other languages as music. Let them enjoy how they sound. Foreign languages are not background noise to be avoided. The more your children listen to languages now, the easier it will be for them to study them later on.

When you hear a foreign language spoken, ask your kids to guess which language it is. Keep them engaged in distinguishing languages.

2. International shopping at home

Go grocery shopping with your kids at your local supermercado (supermarket), verduleria (green grocer) or other business frequented by Spanish speakers. The same is true for other language groups. Perhaps your local flea market or farmers market has vendors who are originally from other countries. Take your kids there so they see the foods typically eaten by other ethnic groups. Get your children interested in foreign foods. A happy palate can lead to an engaged language learner.

3. Find festivals and cultural fairs locally where you children can see foreign dances, hear international music, see the native dress of other places and try new foods.

East Asian cultures celebrate Lunar New Year sometime around February. The parades and cultural events for Lunar New Year are wonderful places to listen to and practice  Chinese, Vietnamese, or other Asian tongues.

Local community colleges or universities have cultural fairs that are often free or low-cost. 

Find out if there is a cultural organization in your area that represents the language you are learning. 

Call the nearest consulate or embassy of the country whose language you are learning and inquire about cultural centers in your area. The website of the embassy or consulate may even have links to cultural and language resources. Here’s a website with a listing of all of the world’s embassies:

4. Music!

Music is a universal language and engages more parts of your brain than language does. Find music in other languages for your children to listen to. Find foreign language radio stations on your local radio dial or on the Internet. You can get music at the library for free or on You Tube. The key is to music your children will enjoy and that is appropriate for their age level. You can type in the titles or verses from the songs on the Internet to find the translation in English to make sure you approve of the content.

5. Geography fun

When my sister and I were kids, my mom had us play a “find this country on the map” game. One of us would find a country on the globe or map and ask the other one to find it. I learned world geography as a game, not even realizing that I was “studying”.

The bottom line is to make it fun so that your child naturally is interested in languages and other cultures. Once he/she is intrigued, you won’t have to nag and prod to get him or her to study.

This guest post is by Susanna Zaraysky, polyglot author of Language is Music, a guide on how to learn foreign languages using music and the media.

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