What language should my child learn?

Learning languages opens doors, offers connections and inspires new ways of thinking. Here’s some advice about which one(s) to pick.

Prisma Staff
• 
December 27, 2022


Take a survey of people you know who studied a foreign language. Ask them why they chose the language that they did. Among their answers, you might expect to hear:

- My parents picked for me

- I liked the teacher

- My friends signed up for it

- I thought it would help my career

- I wanted to be able to use it in everyday life

- I wanted to learn one of the most widely spoken languages in the world

- I wanted to use it for travel

- I was interested in the culture

- My family speaks it

- I wanted to learn a language similar to English

- I wanted to learn a language totally different from English

Now conduct another survey: ask people who studied a foreign language as a kid — and still speak that language today — why they chose their new language. Perhaps you’ll hear similar reasons, but regardless of what got them started,  something happened during their journey: they eventually found the intrinsic desire to keep up the hard work and become bilingual.

We’re not going to pull any punches. There’s one simple answer to the question, “What language should my child learn?”

The one they want to learn.

Now, of course, it isn’t always that easy to just pick a language and go ahead and learn it. If it were, we’d all be polyglots. So here are some things to keep in mind when trying to set your children up for the best second language learning experience possible — which is the experience they want to continue.


How do I help my child pick a foreign language?

Think about their interests and motivations

Foreign language education is a big investment. While language acquisition for young children is effortless, starting at age 10, monolingual learners (people who only speak one native language) will typically have to put in more effort.

If you had an uninspired high school foreign language learning experience yourself, you might have memories of endless flashcards, verb conjugations, and awkward role play activities. Even if you had a top-notch experience, however, you know that there’s no effortless route to obtaining linguistic mastery.

All this to say, you’re going to need your child’s buy-in — and plenty of it — if you’re going to get them to really learn something. There’s nothing wrong with acquiring beginner language skills, of course, and then leaving a language behind; but if you want your child to be able to use the language beyond the classroom, they are going to have to want to do it.

There are countless points of entry into a language, including a personal connection with a native speaker, an interest in the culture, or a desire to travel there.

While it may be more practical to learn Spanish or Chinese (Mandarin) for sheer number of speakers, these intellectual considerations can’t be the only factor in the equation. If a kid is passionate about Japanese because they love anime, Korean because they love k-drama, or French because they love impressionist art, we recommend following their lead.

Sometimes a child’s interests connects directly to a foreign language, but in other cases it’s more oblique. Maybe they like puzzles, so a language with a non-English alphabet like Hindi, Arabic or Russian, could offer them an exciting challenge.

If you want them to try a language but don’t know where to start, you can help them:

- brainstorm possible travel destinations (worldschooling, anyone?)

- think about career goals that might benefit from learning a certain language (diplomacy, international business, hospitality)

- build a playlist of music in different languages or a queue of international film

- experiment with a few trial lessons on an app, such as Babbel or Duolinguo

What do I do if my child is resistant to language learning in general?

Some kids dive into language like a fish into water. Other kids — particularly kids who are shy and/or perfectionists — might act embarrassed, put up a fight, or clam up at the first sound of “hola.”

Here are some things to try if your child doesn’t want to learn any language:

- Make language learning a game: label objects in your house with post-it notes, or introduce single vocabulary words into conversation in a low-key way

- Direct them towards a language with similarities to the English language (for example, Latin-based languages have a lot of vocabulary that are cognates with English words)

- Expose them to languages indirectly (watch soccer on a Latin American tv station, read cooking recipes with lots of foreign ingredients, etc.)

- Go easy on the corrections: If they are willing to take a tiny little step into a foreign language, be extra gentle with corrections at the beginning. There’s plenty of time for them to gain proficiency; start by giving them an A for effort.

- Ask yourself: Is this a good time for my child to learn a foreign language? Foreign language acquisition is a great way to build confidence, but if there are other educational priorities (whether academic or social emotional), don’t feel like you need to rush in tomorrow.


Consider access and accessibility

With all the challenges of learning a foreign language, it’s important to think about how your child learns best. From there, look at what languages are available and in what format, and see what lines up.

Here are some things to think about:

- What kind of instruction does your child need: one-on-one, group classes, in-person or remote? With all the app-based language programs and online communities, the sky is the limit. (Prisma learners can choose a foreign language as an elective through Berlitz.)

But if your child prefers an in-person experience, they may want to choose from one of the most common languages offered at local community colleges (often Romance languages, like French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese; as well as German or Latin).

- Do you have access to an advanced speaker of the language for conversation? Being able to practice speaking and listening is a major advantage for language development. For some kids, however, learning from a parent or relative poses challenges (if they are self-conscious, for example), so finding a conversation buddy in the local community (or online) can be a help — and a great way to make a new friend.

- For students with learning differences, can accommodations be made to support their experience?

There’s no wrong choice


Don’t sweat it too much. There’s no ‘best language’ to learn: on top of the cognitive benefit of learning a foreign language, it teaches executive functioning and study skills. Besides, once you learn one language, it paves the way to learn others more quickly, so there’s no loss if you realize you want to change direction later.

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