raising a traveling tribe: teaching kids {new} languages

by Tina on June 10, 2013

in family, Raising a Traveling Tribe



Hello, and Happy Monday!  This week we are starting off with a new series that I hope you will enjoy.  We will be chatting regularly about raising a traveling tribe and some of the challenges, bonuses, and even tips on how to be a global family.  We as a community here on Flying House represent many different countries, languages, and cultures.  I hope these discussions will be positive and we can grow together as a community as we learn more about being families with a global perspective!

One of the hardest challenges we have ever faced as parents has been putting our kids into new schools where they do not speak the language.  Even talking about it now brings a tightening to my chest.  The first week is always the worst.  Dropping them off and knowing that they are going to be stressed and will feel out of place is like a death dagger to the heart of us parents who claim to care about our children.  Why put them through such misery?

Sometimes I wonder why we even do it?  Why is it so important to me that my kids learn foreign languages?  

First, I believe it builds confidence, which might sound strange after I just described the first days of school for my kids.  The truth is that after a few months of fighting through the stress of language learning, they come out stronger and more confident than ever before.  Second, they are not limited by their language skills in social situations and every now and then they get to brag that they are trilingual.  And that is pretty cool stuff!

Learning other languages also gives them skills in other areas of their lives and research shows that the more we use the brain, the smarter we are!  The more languages they learn, the easier it also becomes to learn another and it gives them more skills and options for work when they are grown.  Kids who speak more than one language also feel more at ease when they visit other countries with languages they have never even heard because they are okay with just listening and following other cues around them to assess what is going on in a variety of situations.

I have thought a lot about what it would be like if we were to live in the States again or if we had never left.  What kind of foreign language skills would they have?  I think times are changing in the States and more and more people are seeing a need for their children to acquire foreign languages at a younger age to help with later proficiency.  But, are there things that we as parents can do to help our children learn languages?

What do you think?  Is it important for children to study foreign languages whether they move abroad or not?

Here are a few helpful tips to consider if you would like to help your kids learn more foreign languages:

1. Read to them in another language.  We have loads of books in several languages and they sit on the shelf with all the English books.  Sometimes we grab one and read about colors in Spanish!

2. Enroll them in a foreign language summer camp.  Maybe you don’t have the option of a bilingual year-round school, but why not try a four week immersion camp?  My daughter LOVED the French one she attended prior to our move to Morocco!

3. Speak to them in another language.  Even if you are not proficient, use the words that you know.  Exposing kids to other sounds and the idea that there is more than one way to say “milk” will really help them down the road!

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Angela June 10, 2013 at 1:50 pm

We come from Australia to Germany every year. Our son(6) has just spent his first month in a German school in the village. He loves it. Children are very resilient.
I am so happy and proud of him. We have used one parent one language from birth.


Tina June 10, 2013 at 1:57 pm

@Angela I am SO jealous of parents that can offer children two languages at home! It seems to be the best way of them gaining a language!


Gabrielle June 10, 2013 at 2:28 pm

I think giving your children the opportunity to learn another language and experience other cultures is brilliant. I don’t have children but I think that teaching children different languages is key to giving them options and a broader viewpoint later in life. I’d love to be able to speak confidently in another language, my French is the basic stuff learnt at school and I definitely don’t have an ear for picking up other tongues! But if I’d started at an earlier age…


Tina June 10, 2013 at 2:30 pm

@Gabrielle Yes! maybe if you had started when you were younger! 🙂 But maybe one day you can try out what you know with your future kids… or maybe some nieces and nephews for now?


heathercloudt June 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Even moving within the US it is possible. We are considering relocating to South Florida and I am thinking about Spanish for the kids. I know that they will pick it up pretty quick and I wish I would have taught them sooner.


Elizabeth Würtz June 10, 2013 at 8:58 pm

I once read the Czech proverb ‘Learn a new language and gain a new soul’, and it immediately stuck as one of my favourites. Learning a language can open up to so many new nuances and world views, in my opinion, and some languages have adjectives which describe such lovely things, but just don’t have an equivalent in other languages.

We are omnilingual at home, but I grew up with many languages and will for sure do what I can to give my son the gift of knowing other languages.


Tina June 10, 2013 at 9:02 pm

@heathercloudt That is so great! You will have to let us know… I cannot believe you might be moving away!


Bronwyn June 10, 2013 at 9:24 pm

Hi, I am an Australian mother of two currently living in Munich,Germany. I have spent half of my life in Australia and half in a German speaking country. My mother is German so I grew up bi-lingual and this was something that I wanted to pass on to our children as I knew what a difference it can make. When my husband (who is Australian) is at home and not travelling we all speak English together. I think for everyone living in a foreign country if time allows for it learning the local language is a huge opportunity as it enables you to understand so much more about the culture that surrounds you as well as dealing with the daily issues you may have to face. After 6 years in Germany we will be moving to another country and our children will be learning their 3rd language. I will definitely make the effort to learn it with them.
Regarding Tina’s 3rd point if you are teaching your children certain words or sentences best to pronounce them correctly as your children will pick up on what they hear.


Tina June 10, 2013 at 9:52 pm

@Elizabeth Boy, and that is how it feels, doesn’t it? I know I feel like a completely different person! One of my favorite parts of learning Arabic was realizing that even in a place that felt so different when you learned what they were saying… well, it was just what we were saying! It made me realize that we are not so different after all!


Tina June 10, 2013 at 9:54 pm

@Bronwyn What a gift! And yes, pronunciation is important. That is why I always liked Spanish- say it the way it is spelled!


Riikka June 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm

I agree that moving to a new place and learning a new language gives children lots of confidence. Our family is Finnish-Italian and we moved to Germany last year so our girls have had to learn a third language at school. Our younger daughter used to be scared of everything (new people, new places, new anything…) and she has changed completely! Actually she has settled in much quicker and better than her “braver” sister and speaks German better than anyone else in our family 🙂


Anetka Kawa June 11, 2013 at 5:29 am

Amazing post and very interesting read. I’m totally pro when it comes to giving; your kids the opportunity of picking up a new language. It’s so beneficial in today’s day and age. The more languages you know, the more doors will open your way. Hugs from Toronto, Canada.


Danish Exchange June 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm

I love how Joshua corrects my pronunciation when reading to him in Danish. The school now also offers online books where we can by the click of the mouse hear the correct pronunciation too. I feel lucky that my children by default are exposed to several languages, because yes my children are much more open to traveling to foreign places and find it exciting. But it is always hard starting school afresh be it in a language you know or not. I know, I went to 10 different schools growing up. Perhaps that’s why I adapt fairly easily to new situations. But I think it depends on the child. 🙂


Danish Exchange June 11, 2013 at 12:47 pm

P.S. I think having more than one language whether you live abroad and use it or not is important, as I agree with what has been said. It opens your mind to a new culture and so a better understanding of others that are not the same as you. And that in itself is a gift!


simplystylishmom June 11, 2013 at 2:48 pm

I found the whole language argument difficult for us (as both English speaking parents) when we moved to Denmark. Put the kids in an English-speaking international school OR put them straight into the Danish system…? we chose 1) for the older and 2) for the younger… and I am worried that we maybe should’ve done 2) for both… Like you Tina, I’m super jealous of 2 language families with a parent speaking a language each to their children. There are many families at our son’s school like that: the children grow up with two language, plus Danish at their kindergarten, then they pick up English at school. Sometimes I am so annoyed with us native English speakers (and our schooling systems) that we were not forced to learn other languages from a young age!!


Juliette June 11, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Language is such a funky thing. We throw around different words for things all the time in our home. I grew up like that, as did my husband. My entire family still calls ham ‘skinka’ even though we were only in DK for 6mo over 20yrs ago! =D


Dunia June 11, 2013 at 10:49 pm

I think that exposing kids to different languages is the best gift we can offer them.
I am from Barcelona (Spain) and have two mother tongues: Spanish and Catalan. My husband is from the Ivory Coast and speaks French.
My daughter is a lucky girl: I speak Spanish with her and her father, French. Besides, we live in the US and my husband and I speak English to each other.
We love new languages and I am constantly diving in new ones 🙂


Andreia June 12, 2013 at 1:53 am

Great post!

What is your experience with the results at school? Is it hard for them to learn the subjects when they don’t know the language?

I understand that children are fantastic regarding the relationships, even when they don’t speak the same language. I’ve realized this before, when we were in Switzerland (the French speaking part) for a couple days. We visited a family with kids with the same age as our kids and everything went well between them, even if they hadn’t any word in common. My kids speak Portuguese and now some English and the others speak French and some Italian. I was there to give some help ( I know Italian quite well and also some French)…but really, it was not necessary my help 🙂


little moments June 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm

oh I love this quote “Learn a new language and gain a new soul” My children teach me french, I teach them Icelandic, their father teaches them arabic and we all speak english with an accent and many times 5 languages in one sentence. Soon we are moving and then everything will change again. Its confusing yes but worth it. Looking forward to this series, Ive been following your blog since you lived in Morocco and I find all this so interesting.


saturdaychat June 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm

First of all I think this is such an interesting topic: I love it! It does resonate with me even if I don’t actually have children (yet)

So I am sharing my opinion based on my personal experience: I am originally italian, I spent 6 years in London which is where I completed my post graduate studies, perfected my english and started my career. I now live in Amsterdam with my partner, so I am currently learning dutch. I always say this to people who feel (or act) lazy when it comes to learning new languages: speaking multiple languages gives you multiple ways of thinking, which will give you tons of opportunities in life and will expand your mind like nothing else will do.

I think you are being fantastic parents by making what might be tough decisions sometime and I am 100% sure that one day (not too faraway from now) your kids will thank you for all this and for all the things they will do in life because of the education you are providing them with today!

Well done!


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:16 pm

@Riikka That is so wonderful! A lot of kids do struggle, but I think when the parents are patient and positive that it helps the kids relax and be patient with the process. It says a lot about you that your kids have done so well!


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:18 pm

@Anetka I love when you said “doors will open your way.” When one learns a language, it literally is as though you have opened a door into someone else’s world. Now you can know them in ways that you would never have imagined! And it also opens doors to opportunity, too!


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:20 pm

@Danish Exchange Is that why you are a language whiz? Your language skills are AMAZING! And I need a link for those online books! That sounds like a great tool!


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:23 pm

@simplystylishmom Every one of us is in a unique situation and we have to make the best decisions we can. Maybe you can enroll your first in some activities that will help with immersion. Kids are little sponges! Ours learned the oral Arabic which they were never formally taught just by simply being around it enough. I wasn’t the quickest way to learn but after three years Jack and I could no longer use it as our “secret language” when they were around!


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:31 pm

@Juliette That is so funny! We use odd words from other languages, too. Sometimes they just stick!


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:33 pm

@Dunia Sigh… Amazing! I am so envious! You daughter probably won’t even realize just how great a gift you guys are giving her!


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:37 pm

@Andreia That is a great question! I was worried sick when we lived in Morocco that our kids were going to be behind, but when we went back to the States for six months, my daughter attended 3rd grade even though she had only completely 2nd in Morocco. Her teacher was amazed by how quickly she caught on and after a month or so was acing her tests.

I started reading with my middle son before we moved to Denmark, so by the time he went to kindergarden and was reading, they were amazed (kids typically start reading in first grade in Denmark.) It has helped him stay right with, if not ahead of the other students despite needing to catch up with the language.

I think it is best to access each child and determine what will be best for them. Our kids still struggle with math so they have a mini tutoring session each week to help them… Oddly enough, most kids excel in math because it is the one subject that doesn’t need a translation! 🙂


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:40 pm

@Little Moments First of all, thank you SO much for following along for such a long time! And wow! Good for you guys! I think it is precious that your kids teach you French. Don’t you think it alters the idea our children have of us when we so humbly ask for them to teach us something? I love it.


Tina June 13, 2013 at 9:42 pm

@Saturday Chat Thank you! I’m so glad you wrote in! It encourages me to NO END to hear adults who have been exposed to multiple languages and can attest to the fact that they are grateful! It gives me so much courage to keep on in my own studies and to worry just a little less for my kids!


hugoandmathilda June 15, 2013 at 9:31 am

Dear Tina, I’m also an expat raising my children abroad (they were born abroad). There are still little and I have so many questions. No doubt that knowing foreign languages is an advantage. I’ve been always ‘attracted’ to getting to know the world and other languages and sort of envied people who grew up bi-/trilingually, but still… As we live far from our families I often wonder what is better for children’s confidence or self-esteem: a strong bound to their families (I mean grandparents and cousins) and through this also to the places they were raised in or another language. Will they not feel lost later on?


Tina June 15, 2013 at 3:29 pm

@hugoandmatilda Great question! I cannot speak for every child, but only my own. While I struggle with feeling lost at times, they never have. I don’t know what they will feel like when they are older, but I don’t think the language will be what gives them any trouble, but simply the cultural differences they will face if they decide to attend University in the US. With Skype and all the technology we have these days, my kids still feel very connected to their grandparents who really take a lot of time to stay in touch. And they constantly talk about their experiences with their cousins as if they happened yesterday. So, I don’t know. We’ll see where we end up in a few years, I suppose!


hugoandmathilda June 15, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Many thanks for your answer. It’s good to hear from someone who has older kids than my own. The technology nowadays is just great. And there is one more positive thing about being far, for me at least, I appreciate more the time I spend together with my family, here and back there. Have a lovely weekend!


About Lora Jakobsen August 19, 2013 at 11:40 am

Tina, as you know we just moved to Denmark from the US and my kids had their first week of danish school. I think it went very well. The other kids have really embraced them and we feel very welcome into the community already. We are hoping to find some good resources to give them the confidence to speak danish. They understand it but answer in English – so let me know if you find out what online books that @danishexchange was talking about.


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