Learning a New Language with Your Family

Oakland is a city diverse in culture and many languages are spoken here. About half of Oakland's residents speak a language other than English in the home. How about you? (In my home we speak English and Spanish, use a little American Sign Language, and occasionally bust out a garbled multilingual sentence with pride -- and sometimes surprisingly little conscious thought. ¿Quieres etwas zu comer?, while signing EAT, is my masterpiece.) OPL offers materials in several languages, including special collections at Chavez and Asian branches. Your family may want to explore these books, music, and films in order to become more familiar with a new language. It doesn't happen overnight! Learning a language together is a long-term investment in family togetherness, and we can help you if you decide to try it.


First, pick a language. Do you have a family connection to a particular mother tongue, or do you anticipate traveling outside the country in the next few years? Perhaps you'd like to better communicate with some of your neighbors. Sometimes getting exposure to a language on your own helps you decide whether to take a class later on. In middle school, I chose to study German because I had American relatives stationed there, and continued classes through college, but in hindsight, Spanish would have been much more useful. (I started with Spanish as an adult, and it's harder for me outside of a school environment. But I can talk to my toddler in short phrases and read to her in English and in Spanish, and I'm starting to understand family conversations between my in-laws.) Make sure to ask your children if they have preferences here; everyone's more inclined to learn when the subject interests them.

Maybe set some goals: Do you want to find your way around a grocery store by reading labels or asking directions? Introduce yourself to a newcomer at school? Think about whether academic, professional, or conversational language will be most helpful and appropriate. Discuss with your children how long it can be expected to take before feeling comfortable speaking or reading a new language, and what kind of work will go into that.


Explore the language learning resources at your library (and beyond). You may already be familiar with recorded courses like Berlitz and Rosetta Stone -- and know that they can run hundreds of dollars for a course set. However, these recordings and more are available at OPL for free! Here are a few suggestions to get started:

  • Audio CD kits from the language learning section can be studied at the kitchen table or played in the car on the way to school. Some come with study guides to explore grammar and spelling.
  • Videos like Muzzy and Little Pim are available on Kanopy in several languages, plus there are DVDS in the kids' nonfiction section that can teach language to beginners. Usually there is a simple story or song that is easy to follow while you learn new vocabulary. Personally, I fell in love with the Baby Signing Time DVDs we checked out and played many times when our kid was littler; she knew more than a hundred signs and used them frequently by the time she could speak, and still signs -- and requests Signing Time -- although she now has many words in English and some in Spanish.
  • Choose a favorite movie and turn on subtitles in the language you're learning, if they're available. You already know what happens! Or try a film recorded in your new language, with or without subtitles, and see how much of the story makes sense. (Remember, there are many other visual and auditory cues in the acting, the framing, and the soundtrack.)
  • Check out some of the simplest children's books with common words in a new language. These picture dictionaries are the kind I used with my own child and others I have cared for. Learning even a hundred words for daily activities and familiar objects will give you some basic tools.
    First Words in Japanese
  • Ask a librarian to help you find some children's stories with simple language. OPL has kids' books in several languages (including large collections in Spanish and Chinese, as well as Arabic, French, Japanese, Korean, and a small selection of other languages). There's everything from fairytales and popular television characters to nonfiction about animals, history, and the universe. Many of the picturebooks and early readers are bilingual in English and the target language. You can request to have them sent to your most convenient branch location or look them over online (many are available as ebooks!).
  • Pronunciator is a wonderful free tool when you are ready to jump into a full-fledged language course. You can customize it for your family's needs and either work through it together or have each member approach the same lesson on their own.

If your family wants to practice more (and repeated exposure and practice will help!), try labeling the objects around your house. Get the kids involved in naming and writing out labels for rooms, furniture, and everyday objects. Don't forget the verbs: to wash, to turn on/off, to sleep, to put away. This can help with spelling and handwriting as well as word recognition in your first language, too -- and it's probably more fun than flash cards. I often find myself using an online translation tool or dictionary to find specific terms I need (this works best if you're already a little familiar and can tell which word you need out of a handful of synonyms). There are free apps you can use for further review, but bear in mind that a screen isn't a substitute for live people speaking the actual language to each other. OPL hosts English conversation clubs; if your new language is a common one, you might find someone willing to practice with you in their language as well. Soon we hope to be back to our regular storytime schedule, which includes some programming in Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. As group gatherings become possible again, make sure that you also find the cultural festivals and neighborhood events that are full of rich everyday language. Oakland residents speak more than 100 different languages -- you should have plenty of support available as your family learns one!