Many people dream of speaking a second or even third language fluently, but not many of us have the time to commit to learning something so huge. One thing everyone agrees on is that it is much easier to learn a second language when you are a child, because when we are young, our brains act like sponges. Nowadays, learning another language is an integral part of the Australian Curriculum.

The acronym LOTE stands for Languages Other Than English and refers to the study of second languages in Australia. There are currently six languages predominantly taught in Australian schools, with Japanese the most popular, followed by Italian, Indonesian, French, German and Mandarin. In Cairns, Mandarin and Japanese are the two most popular languages offered by schools.

The glaring omission is any Indigenous Aboriginal language, of which there are hundreds. The Australian Curriculum: Languages, which is designed to enable all students to engage in learning a language in addition to English, does have a framework for Aboriginal Languages and Torres Strait Islander Languages.

Why is it important for children to learn another language?

Many Australian parents comment that they studied a language at school, but they cannot remember anything, apart from counting to ten or simple greetings. The comment that usually follows this is that they wish they had learnt more.

This is the reality of language learning: students start with enthusiasm, make quick progress at younger ages, but finally drop the language they are studying when it becomes an elective in high school. They finish their schooling without a second language, and so, whilst Australia proudly promotes itself as multi-cultural, more and more of our young adults are monolingual.

The Australian Curriculum indicates that despite its status as a world language, a capability in English only is no longer sufficient. A bilingual or plurilingual capability is the norm in most parts of the world. Learning languages broadens students’ horizons in relation to the personal, social, cultural and employment opportunities that an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world presents. Young people’s brains are wired for language learning and it is a real advantage and an optimum time to start children accessing a second language as young as preschool age.

This is important as it reinforces the acquisition vs. learning theory. Babies undergo a phase psychologists call a “silent period.” As the name signifies, this is the time before babies learn to talk and produce the words in their language, sometimes called the “pre-production stage” of language development. They listen so closely that, in the future, they will soon be able to replicate the linguistic features of the people around them, and when they do, they are greeted with whoops of delight from their misty-eyed parents.

No such luck for students learning a second language. Parents revert to the ‘I don’t know what you are talking about’ routine and sadly, feel that they cannot support the learning of their child.

How to bring LOTE into your home and learn together

Over the years many parents have commented that they want to assist their child with foreign language learning, but they feel they are unable to do so.

Nowadays we have more material available to help our children at home than ever before, with online courses, apps and free videos at everyone’s fingertips. Translation websites are well known, and many learning areas will provide spoken language for correct pronunciation. The philosophy behind language learning is that it requires review in frequent, short doses.

Practical ideas for parents to help their child learn a language

The ideal is to make it part of your everyday home life where children have an opportunity to access the language frequently and in a non-confrontational manner. You can also ask the language teacher for ideas.

The goal is not to test, but to repeat over and over so that material moves from the short-term memory to the long-term memory. My belief is that the best way for this to happen is to learn language through songs. Children like to sing, songs can be played over and over, and the proof is in all the lyrics of pop songs parents remember from days gone by.

• Learn together. Make this a joint experience, much like practicing sport together.

• Frequent review of only a minute or two rather than sitting down to ‘study’. Use advertisement breaks during TV shows or the five minutes before bedtime.

• Make card games, such as memory or snap, to play with vocabulary items.

• Using online sites together. Many language-focused sites are appearing almost daily.

• Find and listen to songs in the target language. YouTube and specific teaching songs are available online.

• My favourite: Hang up words around the home as visual cues. Label the bedroom, living room and kitchen.

• Put lists in public spaces. e.g. on the back of the toilet door. Plenty of time for review!

• The shower is a great place for students to practice speaking. Get a shower speaker, record language (e.g. a self-introduction) and away you go.

• Make videos of your child speaking to keep a record of progress over the years. (much like seeing little Johnny kicking his first football).

• Provide rewards for successfully remembering word lists. Chocolate usually works!

• Keep a vocabulary notebook handy, such as in the car glovebox.

• Use gestures to reinforce meaning. This works really well with younger learners. If you are learning about animals, for example, act out the word you are trying to learn as you say it.

• Another favourite of mine: Learn fixed expressions that can be used frequently, such as ‘I’m not sure’ or ‘Can you repeat that please’ or ‘Thank you very much’.

When language learners are immersed into an environment where their learning is supported, has value and is rewarded, they will thrive. Most parents did not have this advantage as they were growing up, but it is in your best interests to provide this for your children. They will thank you later.