Research and Trends

Struggling to find time to teach your kids a foreign language? Try something radical.

lisaLisa Sarafidis – Guest Blogger

Struggling to find time to teach your kids a foreign language? Try something radical.

In my family, we believe that foreign language instruction and music training are extremely important, as artistic and practical pursuits, as well as for brain development. My children take violin and piano lessons, we use Rosetta stone for French, my husband speaks Greek to them, and we are planning on starting Spanish soon. My kids also watch a lot of TV, lest you think we are some sort of uber parents…it all balances out.


homeschooling teaching a second language The difficulty with languages and music is that they are not disciplines you can easily fake- you get out what you put in. My 8 year old practices violin an hour a day, piano 15 minutes a day, and French 20 minutes a day. My 7 year old practices violin 30 minutes a day, piano 10 minutes a day and (inconsistently) French 20 minutes a day. The challenge, of course, is fitting this in either before or after school, in addition to their extracurricular interests (dance for my daughter and soccer for my son), homework, chores, time together as a family, hanging out with friends, and the ever-elusive “unstructured free play”. Exhausting- and we already set limits on how many activities our kids can do (they are actually less busy than a lot of their friends).

Not Enough Time!

When we added up all of the time requirements on our young kids (and on me, enforcing these schedules), we realized that mathematically, it just didn’t work. There truly aren’t enough hours in the day for the things we think are important. So, we are considering something many people would consider radical: homeschooling.


Create Your Own Schedule through Homeschooling

Our goal is not to make UN translators or professional musicians out of our children, but to instill in them the disciplines ofhomeschooling second language hard work, determination and mastery, qualities often hard to develop in a traditional school environment, where much of the focus is on acquiring superficial knowledge, with the primary goal of succeeding on standardized tests.

Having time for music and languages is only a part of our rationale for considering homeschooling. Taking my children’s individual learning styles into account, as well as our wish for them to discover early on what they are passionate about, what they are good at, and what gives them fulfillment, educating them at home, as well as with the help of mentors we find along the way, is an extremely intriguing option.

Without the requirements of a traditional school day, and all of the externalities that go along with it (getting to and from school, the never-ending after-school snack, and homework) here is a sample schedule of what my rising 4th grader’s day could look like next year :

8:00am-9:45am music practice

9:45am-10:00am mini-recess break (yoga, go for a quick run, look at the birds out the window, whatever)

10am-11am  Math

11:00am-11:15am mini-break

11:15am-12:30pm Language Arts (reading, writing, grammar, spelling)

12:30pm-1:30pm Lunch and play break (my daughter can make her own lunch and even have time to go for a swim at the YMCA across the street)

1:30pm-2:15pm Foreign language instruction

2:30pm-3:30pm SPECIALS (rotating through Art, History, Geography and Science, with one free day)

homeschooling with SpanishFrom what I hear, this is a really packed schedule (apparently, kids only spend about 3 and a half hours learning on any given day at traditional school, so I may be aiming way too high here). But built into this sample schedule is time for a weekly field trip to a museum, musical, play, different town, you name it. Wherever my kids interests take us. And then we can build on those interests in following weeks, or veer in a different direction entirely.

Given that so many programs have been reduced or eliminated in traditional schools to make room for testing and teaching to the test, such as recess, PE, music, arts, even class birthday celebrations, I love the idea of adding fun and creativity back into my kids schedules. And after 3:30, they are free to play, help around the house (because I’m sure they can’t wait to do more of that), and further pursue the activities they are interested in.

Think we’re crazy? Curious about how it will go? I’ll be updating you all on a weekly basis about how we are incorporating foreign language into our homeschooling adventure on The Language Playground, so make sure to come back and check us out! 

Filed Under: Chinese, Classes, Cultural Experiences, Homeschooling, Research and Trends, School for Immersion

Article: The Language of Life: What makes America beautiful?

AmericaWhat a great article discussing the backlash that Coke received for the Super bowl ad where people sang “America the Beautiful,” in different languages. I ,too, got goose bumps when I heard this song, relishing in our beautiful nation filled with all kinds of languages and people. But apparently a lot of people disagree. Is it “unpatriotic” to sing this song in multiple languages? 

The author of the article, Angela Jackson founder of the Global Language Project, discusses the similar backlash that she incurred when she launched the first Arabic language program in an elementary school in Harlem. Questions were raised, “How could we teach Arabic in American schools? It must be part of some type of conspiracy?”

It seems as if some folks are limited to the shortsighted thinking that assumes American children should only learn English and will only need English in their lives. 

Some great quotes from her article: 

” Giving these students fluency in a second language helps them in their future educational and employment career goals, making them highly coveted, multilingual employees.

“The Huffington Post recently reported that kids who speak a second language score 150-plus points higher on standardized tests and that employees who speak a second language earn 10-percent to 20-percent more than their monolingual peers.” 

“It’s ironic that the Coke commercial is being called unpatriotic. What I find un-American is our current public school system where a child’s ZIP code is directly linked to their future educational prospects” 

Check out the full article here: The Language of Life: What makes America beautiful? 





Filed Under: Research and Trends

How To Choose A Foreign Language for Your Child

Question faceHow did you decide which foreign language to teach your child? I was just reading this article on about the best foreign languages for kids to learn, which, to be honest, seemed like a silly premise for an article: how can one foreign language be inherently better than another? What fundamental qualities of a language were they going to use to make such a judgement call? But, since I’ll read anything that promises to reinforce decisions I’ve made for how I raise my kids (or that attempts to invalidate them, in which case I can have a good 5 minutes of fuming about the ridiculousness of the article!), I decided to give it a go.

Foreign Languages 101

Eiffel TowerOf course, the article was much less sensational than the title suggested (isn’t that always the case). It covered many of the basics that I have read a lot about recently (the earlier you start your kids on a second language, the better; the links between learning a foreign language and higher scores on all levels of testing, improved cognitive skills, etc…) And rather than placing some sort of ranking on which languages children should learn, it actually provides some ideas on how to choose a foreign language for your child, which can be difficult decision if you don’t have a cultural or family reason for choosing a second (or third) language. For example, they suggest starting kids on a language that the parent themselves have already learned, even if you only took high school Spanish; being able to learn alongside a parent, even if the parent isn’t fluent, can greatly enhance a child’s interest and speed in learning a language.

How to Choose

Sign LanguageHere are some of the more concrete tips the article mentioned for choosing a language (these are from an American perspective, so it would be different if you are coming at this concept from a non-US perspective):

-If you are looking for a language that might help your child’s future career the most, the article suggests Spanish (the second most common language in the US), Chinese (given its huge population and growing economy), or German (a bit of a surprise, but it is the world’s fourth largest economy).  

-If you are looking for the languages that might be easiest to learn, they suggest Spanish, French or Italian, since so many parents have already been exposed to one of these languages, and they are, like English, Romance languages (based on Latin), so there will be many similarities.

-They also recommend French as the language of choice for the arts, or travel, since there are so many French-speaking countries that are also fun travel destinations.  

-A final suggestion is American Sign Language (ASL); while not technically a foreign language, it is a much needed skill, that can either have future career applications, or just be useful in medical emergencies or disasters.

Lisa Sarafidis’s Story – Guest Blogger 

Of course, at the end of the day, it is a very personal choice, and there is no “wrong” language. In our house, we do Greek because of my husband, and French. Why French? Well, I had originally started out teaching them Spanish, because that was my major in college, and they are getting a bit of Spanish in their school.  But about a year ago, I asked them if they could choose, what language would they pick? Surprisingly, both my 7 and 5 year old chose French. My daughter was born in Paris (she only lived there the first 8 weeks of her life, but she believes she is half American, half Greek and half French…we are working on the math), and so it is something that really inspires her…and what better reason is there to learn another language…inspiration.  And if I can get a field trip to Paris out of it someday….bonus!


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Filed Under: Research and Trends

Bilingual brains age better!

esl apps, apps for kids, learn english app, reading app, apps for toddlers, teach kids spellingSo…let’s just skip over the fact that our last blog post was about 3 months ago.  In our defense, we were busy launching our app Lingo’s Market, but I have to confess that Thanksgiving, Christmas and a few rounds of the stomach bug sidelined us as well. With all of that behind us, it’s back to business! Happy New Year!

I thought a great way to re-start our blog posts was to highlight an article I read in The Huffington Post a few days ago about the positive impact of bilingual language ability on long-term mental health. That sounds like a pretty big claim, but a team of researchers from the University of Kentucky College of Medicine found that elderly adults who had been bilingual from a young age had a higher level of “cognitive flexibility” than monolingual seniors. The bilinguals were better able to adjust to new or unexpected events, and were quicker to complete an assigned task than the monolinguals. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that “…lifelong bilingualism may exert its strongest benefits on the functioning of frontal brain regions in aging,” according to study researcher Brian T. Gold, Ph.D. Yeah! Let’s keep those frontal brain regions going strong- they sound important.

Guest Blogger- Lisa Sarafidis 

This research comes on top of a study published in 2012 in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences that suggests bilingualism could help protect the brain from age-related, neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s. If you still needed a reason to sign your kid up for that after-school Spanish class, this seems like a pretty good one! And for those “monolinguals” of you out there, it’s never too late to start.  I personally love the Rosetta Stone program. I used it a few years ago to get a basic level of fluency in Greek, and I found it easy, fun, and it really worked!

For other fun, language-learning tools, check out some of the tools and books that we have reviewed on our website to help you get started! 



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Filed Under: Research and Trends

Article: Teaching Children to Read and Write in More Than One Language

Lisa Sarafidis – Guest Blogger

The other day I came across an intriguing article about teaching your child to read and write in a second language, on the fabulous blog Multilingual Living. Written by Dr. Xiao-lei Wang, a full professor in the School of Education at Pace University in New York, the article, entitled Teaching Children to Read and Write in More Than One Orthography is aimed at parents considering teaching their kids literacy skills in the “heritage” language (i.e. when the parents’ native tongue is not the same as the child’s native tongue). I think it applies to anyone who wants to help their kids learn to read and write in a second language.

This article really struck a cord with me, since we are debating at home how much effort to devote to teaching our kids how to read and write in Greek.  On the one hand, since they are in their first years of elementary school, they are really working on those early literacy skills in their first language, English, and I don’t want to get in the way of that. Unlike other Romance languages such as Spanish and French, Greek not only has a completely different alphabet, it is also grammatically very distinct from English. And on the other hand, since Yianis only has so much time with them to work on Greek, so far we have used most of that time on verbal skills- it seems like the biggest bang for the buck. If I had to choose, I would rather them be able to talk to people in Greek, than be able to read the newspaper in Greek. BUT- maybe we don’t have to choose…

According to Dr. Wang, there are a few things to consider before starting to teach your child how to read and write in a second language: your own literacy competence in that language, the amount of time you have to dedicate yourself to it, the familial support you have for it, and your child’s specific learning characteristics and abilities.  While Dr. Wang suggests there are several ways that you can introduce your child to reading and writing in your heritage language, she recommends starting as early as possible (i.e. even before school). An added bonus to this is that any literacy your child has gained in your heritage language will definitely benefit their literacy skills in their native tongue once they start school. However, it is never too late to start. Her other tips include:

Have a plan: Dr. Wang has found that for many parents, the key to successfully teaching heritage literacy at home is to have a plan in place before you start. Sounds like obvious advice, but if I apply it to myself, I realize that we don’t have a thought-out plan for literacy (or for lots of other things, to be honest). Maybe that’s why we never get around to it.  

Focus on “Oracy”: According to Dr. Wang, there is a direct correlation between understanding what you hear, and the ability to speak in a language, known as oracy.  Strong verbal or oracy skills set the stage for emergent reading and writing; a child’s “reading potential”.  So the most important thing you can do to promote reading and writing in the second language is to speak to them, and encourage them to speak, as much as possible in that tongue. Reading to them, talking to them about everyday things and playing games with them in your native tongue all promote oracy.  You can check our our free sight words games that you can use around the house, for help with English, French, Spanish and Chinese.

Focus on Language Specific Features: Different languages have different challenges; identify what those are, and try to address them when teaching your kids. Written Chinese, for instance, is extremely complex, consisting of several different kinds of strokes, which are used to create over 500 radicals, which are themselves used to form Chinese characters. Yikes! In the case of Chinese, additional attention needs to be placed on teaching children how to correctly form the strokes, as well as the formation of compound characters. For us, I know that we will need to spend some extra time learning the Greek alphabet, since the letters do not look the same as in English. There are also some other grammatical issues that we will have to focus on (for example, even nouns and names are conjugated in Greek!)

There are several other interesting ideas in Dr. Wang’s article- I highly recommend checking it out here. And I’ll keep you posted on our literacy progress!

Check out some of the tools and books that we have reviewed on our website to help you get started! 



Filed Under: Research and Trends

Article: Top 10 Reasons Your Kids Aren't Speaking Your Language

Lisa Sarafidis – Guest Blogger

Why aren’t your kids speaking your language? Check out Lisa’s story and an interesting article about this topic: 

Lisa’s Story

My family and I just got back from a trip to Greece for my sister-in-law’s wedding. We had an absolutely fabulous time, with the exception of the airplane travel (note to self: if I am ever tempted to have a fourth child, remember the DC to Frankfurt flight…I’m sure all the other passengers will.)

While we were there, my seven-year old daughter, Grace, was very comfortable speaking in Greek to our family and friends. However, Billy, my five-year old, was having none of it. Yianis, my husband, has always spoken to the kids exclusively in Greek, but Billy has resisted responding in Greek, and sometimes acts like he doesn’t understand what Yianis is saying (this might have nothing to do with the Greek, and all to do with the fact that he is 5). 

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One of my take-aways from our trip is that I need to get involved in our kids’ Greek learning. While I am far from fluent, there are many ways I can help our kids improve their Greek (check out our Get Started page for suggestions). I happened to find a really pertinent article written by Corey Heller of Multilingual Living, entitled “Top 10 Reasons Your Children Aren’t Speaking Your Language“.  While all of the ideas in the article were interesting, there were a few that were really relevant to my life:

1. Not Enough Exposure: Some researchers have suggested that children need to be exposed to the minority language a minimum of 30% of the time (on average), to achieve a basic level of multilingualism.  If the parent speaking the minority language is working 40 plus hours a week outside of the home (which is the case in our family), a child might not be getting enough exposure to the language to reach fluency.  This might partly explain why Grace is more comfortable with Greek than Billy, even though they are growing up in the same home: Yianis was working as a professor when Grace was born, so he had a much more flexible schedule for the first year or so of her life. Also, a large part of the kids’ fluency in Greek has been our summers in Greece. We were unable to go to Greece for the last two years, depriving Billy of the opportunity for complete immersion that Grace had at the same age.  Long story short, I need to find a way to provide the exposure myself, since I am the one who is around the kids the most.

2. Need: This is an interesting one. Why SHOULD your child use his second language? If your child can get everything he needs via the mother tongue, then there is really no NEED to use the minority language. So Corey suggests that you can CREATE a need: to play a game, to speak with others who only speak the minority language (family, travel to another country), to understand a book or DVD in the minority language, to get something that he wants. For Billy, going to Greece in the summers will help, but for a more immediate impact, I can see that having the kids watch Greek cartoons after school (which we can easily find on YouTube), could require him to use the Greek he does know, giving him practice in a fun way. Check out this post for other ways to use television for language learning.

 3. Resources: Making sure your child has a good supply of fun, educational activities and books in the second language is really important. If all you have are language-learning text books, many children may become resistant to using them. Board games, DVDs, video games and stories written exclusively in the minority language can be invaluable tools for stimulating your child’s interest.  At my home, we do have a few books and DVDs in Greek, but they are mostly geared towards my daughter’s interests, since the last time we bought Greek books and DVDs was when Billy was very little…and we have no games in Greek.  A definite area that we need to address! But before we go out and order a bunch of Greek board games, we can start by just playing a few card games we already know, but make everyone speak Greek while they are doing it.

I’m inspired to give some of these tips a try! I’ll keep you posted on how it goes. Click here to read the rest of Corey’s article.

If you would like to buy some games, DVDs or books in your second language choice, check out our list of reviewed items here: 








Filed Under: Games to Learn a Second Language, Research and Trends, TV as a Tool

Article: Learning Languages in Chunks

What an interesting article I found discussing how people learn language by “chunking”. Chunking is when a language learner puts words together that usually found together in common expressions, such as “How are you?” or “Make yourself at home.” Chunking was first researched and discussed by psychologist George A. Miller in his paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” (1956). It seems that when people first learn a language, they learn phrases in chunks and it comes into the brain as one unit. However, when a learner gets more familiar with the language, he can then play with that chunk and substitute new words in the phrase to create new meaning.

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Cognitively, it is easier for the brain to pull out these phrases in a new language than to think through new combinations of words each time you speak. Parents probably notice this chunking with their own children. Young children may surprise you by coming up with a phrase that you would think is too advanced for them but they have heard it so many times used together — such as, “It is time to run the bath” or “I have learned my lesson”.  Throughout the day there are many moments for a young child to pick up on these combinations — answering the door, walking into a store, greeting a waiter at a restaurant. 

For the full NY Times article click here: On Language: Chunking 

Michelle’s Story

When I was learning Japanese I clung to these “chunks” for dear life — especially at the beginning of my studies. I knew my cab phrases by heart — “Turn left at the next street please”, “Please stop halfway down the street”, “At the next stoplight make a left”. And my restaurant phrases were down pat too, “Two waters please,” “What do you recommend”,  and “Check please.” I loved my chunks! While we left Japan many years ago, I can probably rummage these chunks up in my brain even now! 

In fact, my memorized greeting phrases were so good that I had people convinced that I was fluent in Japanese! Unfortunately, once we passed through the questions that I knew the answers to (“Where are you from?”, “For how long have you lived in Japan?” , “Where do you live in Japan?” ) I had to struggle a bit more for those answers!

I see my children use chunking to learn Chinese. When my daughter  first started learning the language, her favorite expression that she had down pat was “I don’t know”. But now, I hear less “I don’t know” and more playing with the phrases that she does know. For example, she used to just know how to say “Put on your shoes” — a phrase she would hear often at Chinese school. But now, I hear her nagging her big brother to “Take off your shoes” in Chinese when he comes into the house and forgets to remove his shoes. She was not taught how to say the latter phrase, it just comes naturally now that she is more familiar with the Chinese language and has built up more of an arsenal of vocabulary to put into the phrases that she learned in chunks at the beginning. 

Filed Under: Research and Trends

Article: Bilingual Brain's Auditory System is More Efficient

A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found major differences in how the bilingual brain processes the sounds of speech compared with the brains of those who speak a single language. A bilingual person is better at picking out a spoken syllable, even when it is hidden within a variety of voices. For the first time,  researchers at Northwestern University have documented this kind of distinction between the adolescent bilingual brain and the monolingual one. 

Here is a link to the free abstract on the PNAS website for more information – warning though – it is quite heavy on the scientific terminology! If you would like to buy the full PDF it is 10 dollars.  Continue reading

Filed Under: Research and Trends