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Any ideas how I can teach my 4 yr old son English, even though I'm sure I've missed some vital window by not doing 1 parent 1 language?

A little background: English is one of my native languages but my husband only speaks our local language. When my son was a baby, it felt exhausting for me to speak separate languages and too complicated for my husband not to know what I was saying all day. So I ended up speaking to my son only in our local language with a little English thrown in through songs and games.

Now I've realized it would be really nice for him to be able to speak English, especially since I'm considering one day moving to an English speaking place again and a part of our extended family only speaks English. Since I didn't do one parent one language, what's the next option?

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    Sounds like English isn’t a necessity. Has your son expressed any interest in learning it? Commented Mar 27 at 5:00
  • Sort of! He likes to learn English words, like he thinks they are funny and asks what x or y means sometimes. So I think there is a good chance he is a little interested. I feel like it will be important to start now, because if we move to an English-speaking environment, I'd much rather have him come in with some English than have that rough experience of being dropped into a class at school where he understands nothing all day and can't easily socialize with the other kids.
    – Ladymama
    Commented Mar 27 at 18:17
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    What is your local language? I wonder if there might be materials aimed at exactly this problem, like Dora the Explorer for Spanish/English. Commented Mar 29 at 13:13
  • Be aware, that science tells us that children's brains especially young children's brains seems designed to learn languages. This ability diminishes as the child ages. Consider stepping it up quite a bit, to take advantage of that window. It will be so much easier than learning it as an adult or even as a teenager.
    – nickalh
    Commented Apr 8 at 11:04

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First, the window isn't shut yet, although it is starting to close. It won't shut completely until the early teens. Under that age your son will be able to learn completely fluent English with the same accent as those around him. After that age he will always have an accent.

The best way to introduce him to English is just to start using it. Say something simple in English, then repeat it in your local language. Don't do this as a separate lesson, just in everyday life, e.g "We're going to the Supermarket". You don't have to speak English all day, just a bit, mixed in with everything else.

If you can find some on the Internet, let him watch children's programs in English. Even if he can't understand everything, he'll start acquiring words and sounds in exactly the same way that he's picking up your language.

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    Cartoons on youtube in English are abundant. Just make sure you watch it together since not all cartoons are original, some are weird and inappropriate meshups featuring Peppa Pig or Fireman Sam.
    – Ivana
    Commented Mar 29 at 13:07
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As English is a second language for your son and not the primary language used locally and at school, your first challenge would be how to get your son interested in learning it.

Some children are just intrinsically motivated to learn anything and everything. Then you can just propose to learn a new language for the fun of it. For other children it needs to tie into something else they are interested in. Maybe playing that you have a secret language so you can tell each other secrets without dad or others understanding what you are saying? Just think of something that would make learning a new language a fun activity.

At 4 years old, your son is old enough for some semi-structured teaching, as long as you keep it in a play setting. As for what to start with, start with teaching the names of things, colors, shapes, etc., and start with things he already has a good grasp on in his native language.

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    "Do you know what this is in mommy's language? Its called {word}!", which after some time can transition into a "What do you think its called in english/mommy's language?".
    – Martijn
    Commented Mar 27 at 15:51
  • I like that idea, thanks! I sometimes play matching games with him on the computer etc. but I would rather make the language be something in real life, something part of real interactions. I am wondering how to do that, since when I talk to him in English only, he is like "huh??" and is frustrated.
    – Ladymama
    Commented Mar 27 at 18:19
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    @Ladymama, Once you have him started in learning English, you can start to introduce using English in more parts of daily life. At this point, you have to treat it like learning/teaching a second language, as you are past the point where it will be picked up completely naturally. Commented Mar 28 at 8:27
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While I agree with the previous answers, as someone who only spoke French until the first day of kindergarten, and who learned other languages as needed, maybe my perspective will be informative.

First, I think language is learned by immersion. If one doesn't need to use it, one won't become fluent. Yes, it was probably a bit traumatic only speaking French on the first day of school, but I don't remember that. I was excited to be with other kids in a new setting. I only learned three words the first day: my teacher's name (Mrs. Hart) and the word "bathroom". What I disliked about not having learned English was mispronouncing written words I'd not heard before and eliciting laughter. After about 5th grade, I stopped speaking French at home.

By the time I had kids, I was truly fluent in three languages, and would speak all three of them at home, but as my kids lived in an English speaking country, they didn't retain 90% of what they knew once they left.

As an adult, I pick up languages easily. After 3 months in Zaire (Congo), I was conversant in Swahili. Now it only comes back if I speak Swahili with someone, which is too rare.

I can go on with more examples, and maybe my experience is unique to me, but I find if I need it, I pick it up atraumatically and forget it if I don't use it often.

Teaching your child English is a great idea if they will need to use it in the future, but if my experience means anything, you will need to speak English often, maybe whenever your husband isn't home. Your child may be frustrated initially but that can be mitigated with patience, empathy and encouragement. You haven't truly missed any windows yet.

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Four is a great age to start picking up a language. You haven't missed the boat at all.

Ideally you should find another family nearby that speaks English. Let him hear English from multiple sources, not just you.

Start reading books in English. At the beginning he may be more interested in the pictures, but over time he will connect with the words as well. Listen to English songs, cook using English-based recipes, add more and more English during the day.

This will give him a strong basis for learning English. That being said, it's more important that he is a strong reader/writer/speaker in the native language of your country. English is a bonus but should never come at the expense of proper language acquisition.

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  • Thank you for this good advice. I like the idea of using English more in our daily life and finding someone else who speaks it nearby. And yes, I realized that he is coming along really happily with learning to read and write in our local language, which is much easier to spell than English, so I think I will wait to practice any reading in English with him because the spelling and phonics are pretty different. Thanks!
    – Ladymama
    Commented Apr 5 at 21:00

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