Not Fluent in Mandarin? Here's How to Teach Your Child a Second Language When You Don't Speak It Yourself

My daughters are trying to master Mandarin -- but the help from home is pretty limited, since my husband and I are trying to learn it right along with them. And I know we’re not the only ones struggling to give our children an ear for a second language, without being able to speak it ourselves.

But even if you're not raising your child in a bilingual home, you can give her an ear for another language. The key is trying to expose her to it on a regular basis --more than just a once-a-week class, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD., author of How Babies Talk and an expert in language acquisition. Here's how: 

Start early. Even young babies can start to pick up on the cues and cadence of a language. "It’s pretty easy for kids up to age eight to pick up a language," Hirsh-Pasek says. "After that, they may have a harder time with the accent."

Find a chatty person. Kids need to hear a language spoken regularly to really pick it up, says Hirsh-Pasek. If you need to hire a babysitter, consider one who can speak to your child in a foreign language. Have bilingual parents? Encourage them to communicate with your child in their native tongue. You can also try scheduling in some extra time with a fluent family friend or neighbor.

Consider a school switch. In some areas, there are preschools and daycare centers that run their programming in another language. Summer camps are an option as well.

Make a commitment. While there's no definitive tipping point as to when a child will be able to develop fluency, Hirsh-Pasek says the more practice, the better. As kids get older, look for a class that meets two or even three times per week.

Focus on the long term. Even if your child only picks up a few phrases, she'll gain some understanding of another country and culture -- and that can translate into a familiarity and interest as she grows.

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