Motivating Children to Learn Foreign Languages

I recently taught my son how to ride a bicycle. For our first attempt, I took him to an empty parking lot, held on to his shoulder allowing him to get started, and let go once he had some momentum. As soon as I let go, he would fall over and all this got us was a frustrated father and an angry boy.

Before our second attempt, I watched a helpful video from a professional bicycle trainer. She had nicely organized the process in specific steps. First, it was to practice balancing. This was completed by taking the pedals off of the bike and gliding down a grassy hill while the child only uses their feet to keep balance. After the child is able to do this, they do the same thing while incorporating breaking and steering. Once the child has mastered these three steps, the parent puts the pedals on the bike and the child practices pushing off and then stopping. Finally, when the child is completely comfortable, they start pedalling after pushing off and see how far they can get.

The next time we tried, I was optimistic. I had a better idea what to do, and I was convinced we would see quick progress that I could easily check for in different tests.

After an hour at the park, we were stuck on the first step.  

All he would do is walk down the hill while holding his bike between his legs, but not sitting on the seat. I was despondent; I had no idea how to get the ball rolling. I had tried encouraging him; being forceful with him….Nothing was getting a result.

As a last resort, before quitting, I told him that I would count the number of steps he needed to get down the hill to me. First time – 15 steps. Second time – 9 steps. Third time – 27 steps. It was his last chance. Then he did it – 3 steps and he went flying past me down the hill. It took him 45 minutes to put the remaining steps together and he was soon peddling down the hill. Falling to stop, but an unabashed success nonetheless.

Other than me telling him to do it, my son had no motivation to learn how to ride a bike. He didn’t see the intrinsic value of bike riding, and this was the biggest challenge. He wanted to stop because he didn’t see the long-term benefits and didn’t see the immediate fun in bike riding. When he finally went down the hill on his own, the motivation increased ten-fold. He looked at me with a huge smile and said “I did it!”. He knew what success looked like and he wanted to do more and more.

This is the first lesson we can learn for language instruction. As Instructors, our biggest objective is to equate language learning with fun, and fun is the basis for motivation.

A child will not care about future career prospects, the necessity of multiple languages in an increasingly globalized world, nor the opportunity to study / travel abroad. A child will appreciate having fun, no matter what language it happens in.

We, as parents, see the utility benefit of learning how to ride a bike and learning a second or third language. The advantages of this utilitarian benefit cause us to overemphasize the importance of the activity which removes the fun of the subject matter. For most of us, we view learning new things in the same way we view learning an academic subject. As a result, parents focus on testing and seeing demonstrable ‘progress’ as an essential part of their child’s language learning.

In my more than 12 years experience in the field of ESL, this does not particularly surprise me. Nevertheless, I have seen parents demand to have weekly demonstrations of their 4 year old child’s language learning. This has meant singing a song, reciting a poem, or some other activity that has nothing to do with interaction and communication. In this case, the teachers end up teaching for the presentation. They spend an excessive amount of time practicing a song which, while having its philological benefits, results in an inefficient use of time and energy and takes away all the fun of the learning.

Award-winning author Opal Dunn is a proponent of what she calls the Playful Approach. In this approach, we take the more natural motivations of a child, surprise and mystery, curiosity, challenging, and mutual respect and build on them. We are opening up a whole new world to our children, and the benefit of doing this outside the parameters of formal language learning is that it can be much more fun and the child can build stronger ties with the teacher.

English becomes fun, rather than a school subject. And when English is fun, that means the child will want to spend more time using it outside of the English classroom. Whether it be listening to English music, watching English cartoons, finding friends around the world…these are all available to a child who sees using English as having fun.

By making English fun, the motivation to use it outside of the classroom increases, and once your child wants to use English outside of the classroom, the benefits of this are invaluable.