Foreign Language and Your Child

January 11, 2017
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Foreign Language and Your Child

By Carolyn Oakes, JH Bible Teacher

"¡Los Gringos hablan Español! ¡Los Gringos hablan Español! I can still hear the joy and giddiness of the group of Honduran women doubling over in laughter and disbelief, as they watched our Des Moines Christian mission trip students talking to their little ones in Spanish. "The Gringos speak Spanish," they had exclaimed excitedly! Although our students were asking only simple questions at that moment, such as "What's your name?" and "How old are you," they had made an immediate impression and enormous breakthrough with the mothers and children. This breakthrough provided opportunities to share the love of Christ and the gospel with these precious children and parents.

Foreign Languages
They can be exciting for some students but can send others scrambling to the nurse's office with a stomachache or to the guidance counselor to drop a class. How can we as parents help our children learn a foreign language, especially if we do not speak it ourselves? Why do we even care about other languages? Does God care?

Biblical Background
For context and background, let's look at the beginning of languages. God is the creator of languages and uses them to divide and to unite, to correct and to humble, and most importantly to glorify Himself. In Genesis 10, we see the table of nations formed and then an up-close look at how this happened in Genesis 11. After the flood, God commanded Noah and his family to spread out, fill the earth, and make His name great. We see the people doing the opposite, however, as they gather on the plain of Shinar altogether and attempt to build a tower to the heavens that will make their name great. It would have been an amazing sociological experiment to observe, as suddenly the people were unable to understand each other as God confused their speech. They were speaking different languages and mass confusion ensued. However, God's will was accomplished through this. The people spread throughout the earth as God had originally commanded. They gathered together with those whom they could understand, forming many nations.

The next time we see many languages in the Bible is in Acts 2. The Holy Spirit had come to indwell believers at Pentecost and Peter and the apostles began speaking in different languages. The Jews visiting Jerusalem from many different countries for the feast heard the Word of God in their own language! Again, this was an amazing miracle as languages were used by the Lord to help accomplish His will. Peter preached an amazing Holy Spirit-filled sermon and 3,000 people believed and were added to the early church. Can you imagine what that would have been like? You are visiting Jerusalem from your country and you suddenly hear others praising God in your language. What an awesome God we serve!

It was a joy and privilege to watch one of our exchange students hear God's Word in her own language for the first time. She had a friend and other teachers who had been sharing the gospel with her. She was struggling with her Chinese Bible and the difficult phrases. When I opened the "Jesus film" app on my iPhone and played the gospel of Luke for her in Mandarin Chinese, tears began streaming down her face as God's powerful Word was proclaimed in her own language. This beautiful young Chinese student eventually accepted Christ, as her friends continued to share the love of Christ and God's Word with her. 

Speaking a foreign language has many benefits, such as breaking down walls and overcoming barriers. We see this every year on our school mission trips. The smallest attempt at communicating in one's native language is greatly appreciated. This summer, while tutoring refugee children at Freedom For Youth Ministries, I came across a young boy from Tanzania, Africa, who did not want to read with or speak to any of the helpers or staff. He sat away from the rest of the group with his book and his heart firmly closed. I sat near him and started asking questions. He would not tell me his name so I began guessing names like LeBron, Michael Jordan.he at least looked up curiously. To get rid of me, he told me that he didn't speak English-only Swahili. This was only half true-He spoke English and Swahili. I know a small amount of Swahili as a result of spending some time in Kenya and started speaking random phrases to him. He started giggling and telling me that I was saying it wrong. I probably was but this boy quickly warmed up and we had a wonderful time reading and playing foosball together that afternoon. I had the opportunity to tell him about the amazing love of our Savior. The Lord used language to break down the walls around his heart. 

Another benefit of learning a foreign language is that it boosts one's brainpower. Studies show that children and adults who speak more than one language have higher critical thinking and memory skills. This helps children socially and cognitively. A University of California study shows data that suggests that learning a foreign language prevents the onset of early Alzheimer's and dementia. 

Finally, learning a foreign language broadens one's world. In the 21st century, our world continues to grow smaller and smaller. Students who can communicate in another language will have a deeper understanding of the world and other cultures around them. This is a very important skill to have for business success and Christian influence. We can instill in our students the desire to impact not only their community but also the world for Christ.

Practical Tips
So we understand the background and the benefits of learning a foreign language, but how can we help our students with this? Here are some practical tips that may be helpful.

Provide real world opportunities.
Learning is always better received when one knows the purpose for learning. As young parents, we wanted our children to see that it actually works to communicate in another language. When we went to a Mexican restaurant, we would encourage our children to greet the servers in Spanish with simple phrases. This delighted our servers who would usually keep the conversation going and even help them order in Spanish. 
Each year, our mission trip students come back more motivated to study Spanish after having successful conversations with others. Having the opportunity to speak to a real person motivates and solidifies what one is learning. One does not need to go overseas to practice. There are several churches in Des Moines that have services in other languages. Serving at an international dinner, a homeless shelter, Freedom For Youth or one of the many ministries around Des Moines provide multiple opportunities to practice a foreign language.

Make it Fun.
Our children learn better when they are having fun. 
  • Play games in a foreign language. You can find many online. 
  • Watch children's movies in Spanish with the subtitles set in English. You will be amazed at how much your children will pick up by watching a Disney movie this way. 
  • Sing songs in another language. We have many CDs in Spanish about everything from animal names to Christian praise songs. It is a wonderful way to learn vocabulary, as we usually remember what we sing. It is easy to google a specific familiar title but add "in Spanish with lyrics" or "in French with lyrics." Here is Jesus loves me in Spanish.
  • Use technology. We are blessed to have access to technology at our fingertips. Download one of the many apps that help to learn and solidify a foreign language. We have used fluencia,, and Spanish for dummies, for middle school and high school students. There are many apps available for younger children such as toddlers, Gus on the Go, Spanish School Bus, Crossword puzzles for kids. Mindsnacks, Duolingo, and Babbel are very helpful apps that can be set to one of many languages for almost any age.
  • Make flashcards. For older students who need to learn vocabulary for a test or a quiz, flashcards are helpful. Many students prefer to use handwritten notecards while others prefer to create these online. Quizlet is a helpful online tool.
  • Word Labels- For children of all ages, it is helpful to label everyday items around your house with the word in another language. Many of our teachers have items in their classroom labeled in Spanish. When our children were younger, we labeled many items in our home in Portuguese before we traveled to Brazil for a month. I was pleased with how this helped not only our children but also my language acquisition.
Pray for other countries.  
Praying for countries gives your student more of a heart for the world and more motivation to learn the language. It can also draw you closer as a family. There are two websites that are fantastic for this: Prayercast and Operation World. These websites include information on the culture, language, religion, poverty level and even political climate. It is an amazing way to connect language and our hearts to a lost and broken world in need of a Savior. Operation World also has a book that can be purchased online. Your family will be blessed by this endeavor.

Language is a creation of our God and a tool that can be used for His glory. With the right mindset, some helpful fun tools, and perseverance, our children will be ready for the opportunities that the Lord sets before them.