Teaching Non-Native Language

In many areas of the world, infants learn two languages. In some areas of the world it is common for babies to learn at least three languages. These are quick suggestions for selecting the language(s) that you want to teach and teaching those languages. You may want to consider several factors when deciding on the language(s).

  • Family Backgrounds
    If you have relatives who only speak languages that are not your child’s native language, it will be important for your child to learn those languages in order to have close communication with those relatives. In these cases, it will likely be much easier for your baby to learn the second languages than it will be for most older relatives to learn your child’s first language.
  • Worldwide Influence of Languages
    According to George Weber, who used a logical formula to calculate a language’s influence, English is currently the world’s most influential language. Here is George Weber’s list compiled from the early 1980s through 1995:


    1. English
    2. French (62% as influential as English)
    3. Spanish (54% as influential as English)
    4. Russian (43%)
    5. Arabic (38%)
    6. Chinese (35%)
    7. German (32%)
    8. Japanese (27%)
    9. Portuguese (Brazilian) (27%)
    10. Hindi/Urdu (24%)

In 2008, more than a decade later, Weber stated that the languages still had the same rankings. It is important to note that over time, languages become more or less influential. One factor to consider when choosing a language for your child is predicting which languages will be increasing in their influence in the next 20 to 30 years. It appears that Chinese (Mandarin) is increasing in its influence at a faster rate than most of the other very influential languages.

  • Ease of Teaching a Language
    Obviously, it will be much easier to teach languages where members of the family speak those languages. One key is to speak in complete thoughts in each language without mixing words from different languages during those thoughts.
    If you or your partner is fluent in another language, one of you could speak primarily one language to your child while the other speaks their only language. If you and your partner are both fluent in two languages, then it is probably better if you both speak both languages since you will have slightly different ways of pronouncing some words and since you will use different vocabularies with your child.
    If members of your household don’t speak other languages, please consider the following:


    • Hire a babysitter who is fluent in another language or find a daycare provider who speaks another language. Form a social group with other families and invite a teacher (who is fluent with a native accent) to teach the children and adults using children’s books and natural dialogue situations. Use videos, books, computer software, and/or audio tapes to expose your child to other languages. Travel to areas (across town or around the world) where other languages are spoken and limit your use of English if you are trying to teach other languages.
    • I recommend allowing your child to see and hear the language and to see and hear the meanings of the words. Help your child speak, read, and understand both languages as soon as she or he can. The earlier you can start introducing your child to other languages, the better.
    • It is easier for a young child to learn a second language than it is for older children or adults. One study found that children who learned a second language after the age of 11 had two distinct areas of the brain for understanding languages – one for their native language and one for their nonnative language. On the other hand, children who learned a nonnative language by the age of four had one large area of the brain which was active for both languages.
    • You may want to talk to your child more than the average parent when he is learning at least two languages. I highly recommend that you, and anyone else who gets to spend time with your child, describe his senses throughout the day in as many languages as you can. In other words, talk about what he is looking at, tasting, smelling, listening to, and touching, and describe how he is moving. Talk about whatever he appears to be interested in as much as you can throughout the day. This should help your child learn the languages at or near the level of native speakers.
    • Consider introducing a wide variety of languages to your child. Babies are great at learning patterns of languages. A recent study found that bilingual infants learned as many patterns in English as monolingual infants. Of course, the bilingual infants had also learned a lot about another language.
  • Opportunities for Your Child in the Future
    • There are cognitive benefits of being bilingual, including being a more flexible thinker.
    • Your child will be able to communicate with many more people.
    • Your child may appreciate cultural differences more after communicating with people in other languages.
    • Universities usually have a second language requirement. For some people who are not exposed to other languages early in life, this requirement can be difficult.
    • There may be additional job or business opportunities for people who are fluent in multiple languages 20 or 30 years from now.
    • Teaching your child multiple languages early in life could allow her to learn other languages more easily in the future.