We all have a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn a foreign language for free and with minimal effort. This window of opportunity closes quickly so read on to make sure your kids don’t miss it.
What I am going to explain to you can have a huge impact on your children’s life: it’s free, it can save you money and it can even make you money.
The cost of a missed opportunity
In Mexico, a country bordering the most important economy in the world at this time, most people still do not speak English. Although Mexico is in the same timezone as the US a lot of work opportunities created by the US go to countries like India simply because they do speak English.
In a global economy speaking more than one language has become more important than ever.
Most people only discover the importance of speaking foreign languages once they are already in college. They start thinking about how it could help them to get better job opportunities. In Mexico, if you speak English, your chances of getting a better paying job increase.
There are English language courses offered everywhere and I know people that have spent a lot of money on them and still don’t speak it or even understand the basics!
A lot of primary and secondary schools here see this as an opportunity to make money. They use names like “Oxford College” and try to suggest that your children will learn English there so your children will have a leg up in life.
These schools charge a premium for this and are more expensive than regular schools but they don’t deliver on their promise. I have seen the results from these institutions and more often than not their students end up with an aversion for English and do not speak English or even worse, they end up hating it!
So, as a parent, you want your children to have the best opportunities yet you end up having to pay a lot of money for something that gives you little to no results! So, as a parent, what else could you do?
Well, there is something, and it is completely free!
But, as the title suggests, there is a window of opportunity and if you miss it you are left with the costly less effective options described above. You will never get the same benefits as when you use what I call “the free language window”.
Open the window
The concept of “the window” is easy, but before I reveal what it is, it is important to understand how we learn, or rather, acquire languages.
In primary and secondary school students will get language classes, which in my opinion, rarely lead to them actually learning the language. The way languages are taught simply does not make sense and it does not work. Add to this that the teachers often do not even speak the language themselves!
Language classes in school go something like this. A teacher will say simple phrases and students repeat the phrases without even knowing what they are saying. The students may be able to repeat the phrases but a language is not about memorization.
Next, before the students even speak or understand the language they are forced to learn how to write it. A lot of emphasis is placed on learning the grammar or “rules” of the language. The thought is that if you understand these rules you can apply them to properly use the language. I think this makes no sense at all and is actually completely backwards!
Again, when you learned your native language as a baby you were not taught what a verb or a noun was, yet you dominate this language more than enough to communicate everything you need by the time you are 2 or 3 years old!
To explain this a little more, think about how you learned your native language. You understood and spoke it before you even went to school for the first time. How is that possible? How can you learn anything this complicated without reading a book or taking a class or understanding its grammar rules?
Fear of making mistakes
This brings up another important misconception about learning a language. I have had a lot of people whom I know have studies English tell me they prefer not to speak it until they feel they have reached a certain level.
This means they keep living in fear of making mistakes and miss out on opportunities to practice. They think you need to dominate a language fully before you can start using it. I think this a big mistake. This is like learning to swim by reading a book and throwing yourself into the deep end of the pool before ever getting wet!
100% is not required
Think about all the possible words and intricacies and many meanings of your native language. Now think of the part of your language you actually use on a day to day basis. You will see that you do not need to know the whole language in order to use it.
The main goal of learning a language is to be able to communicate! Unless you want to become a writer in a foreign language, you do not need to learn the full vocabulary and all of its subtleties.
Communication means you want someone else to understand what you need or mean. To accomplish this you do not need to dominate the language and there is no problem if you make mistakes or use the wrong words. If the other person understands you and you understand them then you were successful. It was not perfect but got the job done.
To fully learn and dominate a language may take a whole lifetime. As I mentioned though, this is not needed in most cases and you can, and should, start to use and benefit from knowing another language much sooner.
Association over memorization
Our brain learns best by association. As a baby you start to learn your native language because your brain is able to associate visuals, emotions and sounds. So as a baby you will hear your mother’s voice and start to relate the sounds to what is going on around you and give things a meaning. You hear the word “apple” enough and see your mother holding an apple or pointing to it at the same time so your mind understands she is referring to that thing and that it is an apple.
Our brain is always learning through multiple pathways at the same time trying to make associations between all inputs. Have you ever had a memory pop up simply because of a smell? This is because somehow that memory was associated with that smell. This is a big indicator that context and association are essential for how our brain works.
So if we go back to the school example, where you are taught by simply repeating phrases, we are missing the visual and emotional components completely and you are trying to force your brain to store information without a context and with no associations. This is the main reason why it is so hard to learn a language at school. Your brain requires context and multiple inputs to properly associate what you are learning and relate it.
So what’s the problem?
So, back to how this relates to learning a foreign language, how can we more easily learn a language? And how can we do it for free? I am getting to that.
I grew up in the Netherlands and my country has a reputation for its people’s ability to speak multiple languages. Yes, we have a very recognizable accent, I am aware.
Almost everybody speaks English to some degree and a lot of people also speak Spanish, German and or French. In general the Dutch are not afraid to speak different languages and they actually enjoy it. So is that because we have some gene that gives us a talent for languages? Or is it because the education system is so good or is there something in our food? NO!!!
If it was genetic would we not see the same talents, or at least similar, in people from neighboring countries? If you go to Germany or especially France you will see most people do not speak other languages.
The difference between the Netherlands and its surrounding countries is that we do not overdub our foreign television programs. (Dubbing is where voice actors are used to translate the voices in a different language.) On tv and in cinemas, if they show an English movie, the movie is not translated into Dutch. In stead it has Dutch subtitles and the movie is shown in its original language.
Almost all countries primarily dub their movies which in my opinion is a crime!
It’s fun and it’s free
As a kid, I would watch programs and movies in English, Dutch and German and, even before I could read the subtitles, started to understand these languages to some extent. The key is that through television and movies you get the full mix of visuals, emotions and sounds that you also got when you learned your native language.
Kids love to watch TV, so why not make sure they learn something while doing so? Most parents will make sure their children watch informative content but often do not worry about the language aspect.
Watching movies or TV in a foreign language with or without subtitles in your own language can accelerate the learning process in a compounded fashion. You are doing something you like to do, you visually see scenarios which give context, your brain hears the words, even if you are not actively listening to them, and if you read the subtitles, you even add another layer of understanding, so your brain can store the associated visuals, meaning, sound and emotion.
Wow, why is not everybody doing this?
The language window
I have been speaking to parents about this for years and I often get the same reply: “My child does not understand English yet so I will set it to Spanish for now. When they are bigger I will switch it to English.” They do not understand they make a huge mistake and close the language window for their child.
The reason I call this the “language window” is because there is only a very limited time frame you get to apply this technique and you have to apply it from the start or the window will close.
Young children do not yet know that you have the ability to change the language on their movies and TV shows. Netflix allows you to set the default language so it is very easy to set once and get all your content in English so there really is no excuse.
If your child starts to watch movies in English from the beginning, they do not know any better and they will accept this as the way it is. It will be their normal.
If you do not do this, and you try to switch it later, they will definitely notice and they will demand you change it back. The window is closed and their normal is that movies are dubbed. If you now try to force the window open and have them watch in English they will hate you for it, they will reject it and will see it as punishment which will make them hate English so it will not achieve a positive effect anymore.
They will also now know where to change the language settings and will set it to Spanish. You have lost the opportunity so there is no sense in fighting them over it.
Daddy, why do they talk funny?
Children will identify with the voices of their favorite characters and will reject it when they suddenly start to sound differently. My children asked us once when they were watching a TV show at a cousin’s house “Why do they talk funny?”. They were seeing it dubbed in Spanish for the first time and recognized that the characters did not sound naturally.
Small children especially are mostly focused on the visuals and the emotions and will not pay much attention to the words. Their brains though will hear and process these words and associate them to the visuals and emotions, so even though they do not understand the words they are learning the language.
They are learning without even knowing AND they are enjoying themselves. What more do you want!
I learned to speak English this way and have applied this method to my own children and they now also speak English at a higher level than their school is teaching their age. More important, they enjoy speaking in English!
When their cousins or friends come to our house and watch movies I often hear them complain that they do not understand the movie because it is in English. When they ask if we can switch it to Spanish I tell them that in our house we watch everything in the original language, which of course they do not like. They often lose interest and do not want to watch movies at our house.
The way I see it, these children were robbed of a once in a lifetime opportunity and will have to suffer the consequences later in life.
Trust me, I have spoken to many parents about this yet they often chose not to apply it. An often heard reason is that they prefer to watch movies in Spanish because they themselves do not speak English!
This frustrates me to the highest degree as I see how the children are negatively affected by a decision their parents made that would have cost them nothing but would have given them so much and will now cost them at one point or other!
In contrast to children that ask if we can switch the movies to Spanish, I have seen my children do the same in reverse where they ask if the movie can be put in English when they visit other people’s home. I did not tell them to do this or force them to learn English, this is the result of simply introducing your children to the content in the original language and giving them the joy of experiencing it in the way it was meant to.
If you are exposed to foreign languages from an early age it has been proven to create neural pathways that prime your brain for learning multiple languages. This means any other languages you want to learn later one will be much easier to acquire.
Don’t close the window!
In Mexico in recent years cinemas have stopped offering movies in their original language. This is a logical business decision as people prefer to watch the movies in Spanish because they don’t speak English. But, the consequences of this will become evident in the future as more and more people will not be able to speak English. I feel sorry for all these people but I recognize this opens more opportunities for those that do. As you are reading this I hope you see the same thing and you make a better decision for your children.
If you are reading this as an adult there is still hope although the benefits will be far less. Simply start watching your movies in English and turn on subtitles. This will be less enjoyable at first but it will still function in the same way I described above. You WILL start to learn or improve but expect this to take longer then it would if you would have done this as a child.
A message for all new and upcoming parents
If you are a parent of very young children or are about to become a parent, please take my advise and do not let your children watch dubbed movies or television. Do not worry they do not understand the words, just have them soak up the language. Trust me, they will thank you for it.