Families are a wondrous thing – they are all unique, a safe space for growing and experiencing life’s major lessons, full of love, forgiveness and the chaos of life, and littered with special moments of real connection and joy. I sincerely believe that families, not schools, are where you learn your most important lessons, and that we should be leveraging the family unit more in a child’s learning process. This is especially evident when it comes to learning languages. We believe that the context of family provides the best environment for learning to take place, because in our experience, kids don’t want you to tell them that it’s important to learn Spanish – they want to see you take it seriously enough to also put the time into learning it.

My husband, a linguist who speaks six languages fluently, and myself, an educator, are firm believers that in order to learn a language it must be part of life. It cannot be taught as a subject in isolation, but only through personal interaction and meaningful day-to-day experiences can language learning take place. We call this Environment and Necessity and you can’t get away with not having them when you want to learn language.

You also need confidence to use a language, because despite the best theoretical intentions, when you are on the spot, you need to be able to speak to people. We call this confidence in language identity – because it is one thing to learn a language but in order to use it, it must be a part of who you are and how you see yourself.

Families, by nature give you these 3 pillars for language learning – environment, necessity and identity. Within the family context, you feel a sense of belonging (identity) with learning something together that is unique to your family. Within the walls of your home, you can create a culturally rich environment where the language not only get’s practiced, but the culture celebrated through foods, traditions, and music. And finally: the dinner table, the bathroom, the kitchen, and the car provide you with the place/opportunity for daily language interactions to take place. We even heard of a family who practiced a different language in each room – Spanish at the dining room table, Portuguese in the kitchen and French in the lounge!

Other great advantages for language learning in families is that there is no need for false pretense, and you can learn at a pace that is both challenging and supportive. One of the main reasons adults do not do well with language learning is because they feel silly or inhibited, this prevents them from forming an identity in the language, or not one they feel comfortable with at any rate. In the context of family, looking and feeling stupid is forgiven and sometimes even encouraged!

In a family setting there is healthy competition; that is accountability and expectation but without the pressure. There is space for individuals to excel where they have strengths but be able to laugh at their failings. It keeps everyone doing their best and provides plenty of grace and support when you fail.

The longevity of language learning within the context of a family is also a great benefit. Often, language learning occurs only for a season, and when things get busy or the budget is tight, language lessons are the first to go. Whereas learning as a family you have a much greater chance of continuing because it can be done at home and as part of your daily life. The language also becomes part of special moments together as a family, which your child will be reluctant to forget.

Of course, language learning as a family is not without it’s challenges and making the shift from one dominant language into using another will take a lot of time, dedication and practice. We encourage families to be creative and think of special ways to make learning memorable. Creating make-believe situations and games are often a part of family life. With respect to language learning, this might mean creating a language environment around an area, a time of day, or an activity.

To sum up, if you have never thought about your family as an asset in your child’s education, perhaps now is the time to start. Learning something together, most especially a language, will yield both practical value and emotional connection. In the language learning programmes that we run for children and families we have seen great results, so dust off that Spanish phrase book or isiZulu audio set and get learning!

(This article first appeared on Tums2Tots online, view it here)