Language Islands: Help Your Child Navigate a New Language


by Eva Litzenberg

Remember the last time you were in a country where you did not speak the majority language: hearing people speak to each other without having any idea what was going on. At the beginning of your child’s language journey, they will feel very similar.

Language Islands build confidence.

This situation can feel like they are lost at sea in a tiny rowing boat. Language islands, like their geographical counterparts, offer a breather: a chance to rest and stock up on supplies.

How language acquisition works

As a baby, your child can pick up languages effortlessly without you having much to do apart from speaking to them. Experts believe that your baby’s brain is born with an innate instinct for language learning. The child observes the world around them, interprets the sounds and actions of the people in their environment and absorbs the language around them.

Babies have a few practical advantages: 1. In their early life learning to understand and communicate is their only job (well, nearly) and learning to communicate effectively shows instant reward. 2. Verbalising their needs will be a lot more effective than crying and hoping mum or dad can figure out what is wrong. 3. They soon work out that any new development results in plenty of happiness and praise from their caregivers.

When we get older, we don’t lose our innate language instinct completely, but as our lives get more complex, learning more languages moves down in our brain’s list of priorities. This is a result of our brains’ constant cost/benefit calculations. It rewards “good” choices with a dopamine hit, and tries to prevent us from unproductive or harmful actions with anxiety and guilt. Learning to speak requires energy, and if we can make ourselves understood to the people around us, our brain thinks we are wasting precious energy on something that is of no benefit to us.

From a child’s perpective

Imagine you are 5 years old and one of your parents starts to suddenly address you in a foreign language. Perhaps they were told you have an innate instinct for languages, so they speak to you as if you should instantly understand them. I would imagine surprise, followed by anxiety, frustration and finally refusal. Combine this with the fact that your average 5-year-old will not be able to see the very real, but very abstract, long-term benefits. From their perspective, it looks as if you are asking them to do extra, anxiety-inducing work with absolutely no tangible benefit to them.
This is normally where parents give up. After all, who wants to actively distress their child? Learning language through immersion is hard precisely because your child’s natural reaction is frustration and anxiety.

Language Islands

When I work with a child, Language Islands are one of the first tools I use. I also use them in my work with adult beginners. These are short, simple phrases that the child can recognise and I use them consistently in the same context and the same situation and never changing the wording until the student recognises them.
My students know that my first question to them will be: “Wie war dein Wochenende?” This question becomes a ritual that the student can anticipate and it takes the anxiety out of a scary situation (I will have to speak in a language I am not comfortable in.) and allows my student a feeling of control and allows us to expand. The student knows which question they will be asked, so they can prepare a response and can control the direction of the conversation. I, on the other hand, can push them very slowly out of their comfort zone without losing their cooperation.

Language Islands at Home

Good news: you can easily implement Language Islands at home and help your reluctant speaker slowly gain confidence whilst feeling in control. So, let’s look at how to get started. The first step is, as always, preparing your child.

Many multilingual projects fail at this hurdle: parents treat their kids like an adversary they have to overcome. Most kids want to instinctively please their parents and refusal is a sign of, here it is again, anxiety and frustration. So, let’s get junior on board by explaining what you are doing, why and how in an age-appropriate way. Then pick your Language Islands. With an older child, it makes sense to choose together.

As always, when it comes to introducing your child to your language, the more relaxed the occasion, the more effective. You know your routine best, but here are some ideas.

Some ideas to get you started.

  • Greeting them in your language or tucking them in at night. Start with Good morning and Good night and slowly expand from there.
  • Offering treats in your target language. Let’s face it: Möchtest du Schokolade? is a much better sell than Mach deine Hausaufgaben.
  • Journeys, especially regular ones. You may have heard the advice that kids find it easier to discuss emotional problems in a car because you are not directly facing each other. The same is true for language experiments. So pick a Phrase. Let’s go to X is a good one. It’s one phrase for starters and there is no pressure for your child to respond.
    Another opportunity is the school or nursery run. Start with a phrase and challenge each other to keep going up until a certain landmark and celebrate with a treat when you finally make it all the way home
  • Fun family acticities: what do you, as a family, enjoy? Board game night? Arts and crafts? Cooking? Sports? All these activities are a great opportunity for Language Islands. Board games often come with specific phrases. Use them in your target language? Use the words for equipment?

Language Islands are brilliantly simple and versatile. The more consistently you use them, the more you help your reluctant speaker’s confidence. Give it a go and tell us how you got on.