Choosing a second language for your child

Welcome back to Little Learners with LinguaMites! Last time we explored the value of family learning, particularly when learnign languages. Today we are looking at how to choose a second language and answering a few more tough questions for you.

I’m going to begin with the assumption that you believe in the benefits of growing up in more than one language. Learning a second language provides enormous value in improving memory, creativity, problem solving, cognitive reasoning and executive functioning.

We don’t want our children to be blind to the social differences of other cultures and languages. We all want to raise our children to embrace diversity and be adaptable, culturally sensitive little people.

Even if we all agree on the value and importance of raising a child in more than one language, often the next step is the hardest. What am I going to do about it? Where will they go to learn it? What language should we focus on? And what approach will we subscribe to in teaching second language?

Yes. Once you have decided on a multilingual / bilingual upbringing, that is where the hard part really starts.

Who should do it?

The truth is that in our education system, you cannot leave it up to your child’s primary school to teach them another language. I believe that a child’s capacity and motivation for language learning severely decreases after age 8.

That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it is harder. My own personal experiences in both school and afternoon programmes support this. Children’s lives become busier the older they get. And they need to understand why they are learning something in order to stay motivated. Often they cannot see the value of learning a second language merely as an academic pursuit.

I also believe that languages are taught badly at school. Teachers rely on mixing the language they are teaching with the language the child understands. The result is that the child has no necessity to engage with the target language in a meaningful way. How many of us learnt a second language at school and yet cannot string a sentence together in that language today?

Even if you got a teacher who spoke exclusively in the target language and tried to completely immerse the students in his/her language, classes are too big and lessons come out of a textbook. Children are not forced to speak the target language to each other and are bored by the lesson structure.

second language boerd child

So it is really up to you, the parents, to get your children learning languages. It can start as early as birth, with your choice of nanny and preschool. Because young children do not have the same time constraints or inhibitions that older children have, learning languages before the age of 8 is much easier.

Parents need to carefully consider the nursery school they choose and the caregivers that surround your child in these early years. Your child will grow up bilingual if their caregivers can speak exclusively in their mother-tongue. If you are able to send them to a school that incorporates language effectively into their education routine, even better. If you can have both – do!

Then to the question of which language

It is important to remember that no one language is more important than another. By speaking two or more languages, your child will already be reaping the benefits of multilingualism. But, if you are debating which language to introduce to your child, consider:

Heritage (what language do you, your parents or your grandparents speak?)

A great way to introduce and sustain language learning is through close family your chld can relate to.


Consider the language most widely spoken around you or accessibility to a new language. Do you have neighbours who speak a different language? Language programmes in your area? Or a dominant African language that your child will have opportunity to practise?


Consider the global economy and potential work environments your child might one day find themselves in.  Try to give them a language that is recognised globally or spoken by many people internationally. These could include Chinese, Spanish and French.

In our multilingual preschool, we selected three languages – Chinese, English and isiZulu. We believe these will be the most useful to the next generation of South African children.

These languages represent three completely separate language groups. This makes them an incredible foundation for future language learning. Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan group of languages, notable for its use of tones. isiZulu is Nguni language, notable for its clicks. It is also part of the Niger-Congo group of languages that stretches across Sub-Saharan Africa. English is an Indo-Germanic language that straddles both Latin and Germanic languages in a unique way.

These languages also sit at interesting cross-roads socially and economically. isiZulu is the largest first language in South Africa. It is spoken as a second language by almost 60% of our country. Chinese is the fastest growing second language globally. People outside of China are learning Mandarin due to the growing demand of business relations with that nation, Africa first among them. It is also the language spoken by the largest people group in the world.

When we teach language, we also emphasise the culture associated with that language. Our classrooms are culturally rich places where music, food and fun intersect in very memorable and engaging experiences. Each of the three languages are facilitated by only native speakers in a dedicated space where only the target language is spoken.

What approach do we take?

You have made your choice of language. You’ve decided on a person and school to provide the language environment to your child. Now, what approach should you take to guarantee effectiveness and ongoing motivation?

The most effective and quickest (although by no means easiest), is the ‘One Person One Language’ (OPOL) approach. This involves sticking strictly to the target language without compromise. It’s how babies learn language for the first time. If I dumped you in the middle of France, it would be how you learnt survival-French before you died of starvation.

When you create an environment and a necessity, language learning can really occur. But there are other tools that can be used to effectively teach language, including FUN PLAY. Again, this isn’t something we’ve never heard of… We know play is the ‘learning’ of children, so if you want something to stick, make it fun!

second language fun

Other ideas include incentivising learning and speaking with a reward or treat. Parents have been doing this to incentivise good behaviour since we were all cavemen. Classes in whatever setting should also be small. Children need the opportunity to practice and repeat everything they learn in the lessons.

The truth is, raising a child in more than one language is not impossible. Especially in South Africa, a country with 11 official languages. There is much opportunity, we only lack the resources and willingness.

Taking the first step towards multilingualism can be daunting. But, as a mom of 3 trilingual little people, there is little that gives me as much joy as seeing them converse with others in another language. I know that the money, time and effort I have devoted to raising them multilingually will pay off. They may only see the value in years to come, but I will never regret the investment I have made into their futures. They are well on their way to becoming clever, sensitive and adaptable adults and that makes me super proud.

LinguaMites is the first trilingual preschool in South Africa, based in Ferndale Gauteng. Other subsidiary services include their ZuluMites Afternoon Activity Programmes, Caregiver Training for Nannies in your home and Family Classes.

Meryl Bailey

Meryl Bailey is an educator and a thought leader on language acquisition. Together with her husband, Meryl founded LinguaMites Multilingual Pre-school in 2013 – the first preschool in South Africa to offer quality education in three languages (Chinese, English and isiZulu). She is also the very proud mom of 3 brilliant trilingual children all under the age of 6yrs.

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