The Secret to Learning a New Language? Getting a Great Start in the Home Language

“I want Sofía to learn English, but I feel funny reading in English when I’m just beginning to learn the language myself. Is it OK if I read to my daughter in Spanish sometimes?” Mrs. Ramirez asked her daughter’s preschool teacher, Susan. She was surprised at Susan’s response: “Actually, reading to your daughter in Spanish is the best way to make sure she is successful at learning English, too!”

This wise teacher echoed the advice of many language and literacy researchers.  At first, this may not seem to make sense. How can reading in a child’s home language help them do better at learning a new language? The answer has to do with knowledge  - the knowledge that creates the important foundation for first and second language development. The more knowledge a child has about what things mean and how things work, the easier it is for that child to learn the words that go with that knowledge. So, learning a lot in the home language also lays the groundwork for learning a new language.

When your children help you cook, they learn concepts about measuring, counting, and tasting. When they help you fix something, they learn how tools work. When you read stories together, they learn new ideas and words. Building all that knowledge at home in the home language is like food for their brains. When you read, sing, talk and play with your child in your home language, you have so much more to say! You can explain things and use interesting words and share your own experiences with so much more depth. This rich, engaging home language experience helps your child’s brain develop and prepares him to be ready to learn a new language, too!

Karen N. Nemeth

Karen N. Nemeth, Ed.M. is a national expert on first and second language and literacy development. She is an author, presenter and consultant working with government agencies, schools and programs to improve early learning experiences for children who are growing up with two or more languages.