Rest and Joy: Our Approach to Language Learning at Home

by Julia Kraut

When we attended my friend Lindsey’s wedding a few years ago, I knew I had to corner her mom and talk to her about parenting. I know a lot of close, loving families, but Lindsey’s is more than close—they’re friends. As my own family grew, I often wondered how I could foster the same kind of family bond. So, when I bumped into Lindsey’s mom in the hallway during the reception, I had to ask: What was her secret?

Her answer: She prioritized activities that everyone in the family enjoyed.

Granted, there were still times when they split off and pursued their own separate interests. But over the years, when she had a choice, she steered her family toward activities in which they were all having fun, together, doing the same thing.

So, my husband and I tried it in our home. We’ve forgone things like ballet lessons in favor of family dance parties and passed up date nights in favor of family movie nights. While we still do some individual activities, we try, against the current of modern life, to push toward more family time. Five years and two more babies later, I’ve found that these family times are what make us feel rested.

And my husband’s interests as well as my own are part of the equation! I’ve sometimes noticed myself defaulting to “kid activities”—board games, reading books, playing in the backyard—without thinking of the toll those activities take on me as a person. I engage in them with my children because I love my kids, and because playing certain board games or reading that library book for the millionth time is good for them. But those activities often aren’t fun or restful for me.

Lately, I’m trying to be more and more intentional about replacing some of these activities with ones that “check the box” for me, too, such as upgrading a board game to one I enjoy as well (hooray for Catan Junior!), or putting the kids in the bike trailer and zipping around the neighborhood instead of slowly shuffling after them while they ride their scooters. Our family feels the most like a team—and I feel the least stressed and the most able to parent the way I want to—when we invest time in activities that make all of us happy, together, at the same time. These activities might sometimes seem like more work on paper, but they are worth the extra effort because we all enjoy them. They feel fun. They feel like rest.

We also apply this mentality to language learning in our home. Sometimes I look at my kids in awe as I hear them using French or Spanish in addition to English and wonder, “How did we manage to teach our children three languages?! We can’t even get them to clean their rooms!” I’ve finally come to the conclusion that the answer, at least for us, is twofold: rest and joy.

Now, to be fair, my husband and I have tools in our language-teaching toolboxes (including advanced degrees in foreign language study and years spent living abroad) that many families don’t have. But we also know a number of families who do have some of those same tools at their disposal and still aren’t seeing their children “take to” language learning the way ours are. How our children feel about studying French and Spanish is making a huge difference in their learning. This means that incorporating language study as an enjoyable part of everyday life is something all parents can do, whether they are advanced language scholars or learning right along with their children, because the key is encouraging children to enjoy and look forward to language learning.

When we’ve played with teaching our children languages, we’ve done just that: played. I’ve often found myself taking a break from cleaning or cooking and instead sitting down with the family when I hear my husband reading a favorite book to the kids in French. Other times, we ease up on our screen-time rules and enjoy cartoons together in French or Spanish.

I choose those words carefully: “enjoy together.” The times that “count” as restful, joyful ones are the times when we adults are enjoying ourselves, too. We end up in a feedback loop in which language learning serves our family’s bigger goal of feeling like a team, so we spend more and more time on language-focused activities.

The French for Children and Spanish for Children series, and especially the Song School Spanish books, are designed to bring your children into language learning in a way that’s fun for them. As the authors of these two series, my husband and I lean more and more in this direction with each book we finish and the more we experience it for ourselves. The most recent level, Song School Spanish Book 2, can basically be played instead of taught. When writing this book, one of my goals was to enhance learning experience by incorporating language acquisition with gross motor movement, so I created games and activities that are designed to do just that. But there’s one piece we didn’t put into these books, and that’s whether or not you, as the homeschooling parent-teacher, are having fun, too.

Song School Spanish Book 2 Full Program

So, what can you do to create a restful (scholé), joyful, whole-family space for language learning in your own home and life?

Here’s one idea: Invest time in your own enjoyment of the language. If you’re new to the language you’ve chosen for your children or family to learn, try this: Take an inventory of what you do for restful fun on your own terms—what you would love to spend a kid-free staycation doing—and doodle out a list. Then go online and search for those topics, but add the name of the language your family is learning: “crocheting French,” “motocross Spanish,” or “fishing Italian.”

You’ve probably already started learning some general cultural information about countries where your target language is spoken, but make sure to invest time in the specific cultural information that you care about. Find the newest, coolest crochet pattern all the French moms are sharing, or learn about Spanish geography by finding out where the best dirt bike tracks are.

Language learning is something my husband and I have fallen in love with, and something we’ve done for fun, both on our own and together. We’re word lovers, so it’s a little easier for us than it might be for other people, but we’ve found ways to make language learning part of our rest and our play. My husband loves folk music and has found amazing French folk bands. I love great children’s books and burn up my annual “fun money” budget line ordering publications from other countries (recent favorite discovery: Isabelle Carrier’s La petite casserole d’Anatole, written in French and available in Spanish as El cazo de Lorenzo, but still not published in English). We bought Settlers of Catan in French. We love cooking, and when we have time to do more than throw a pizza in the oven, we research foods from other countries and follow recipes together in French or Spanish. Language learning has become a restful space in our lives. It’s fun. It’s joyful.

If you find yourself guiding your children into language study more because of what you don’t want (missed educational opportunities, falling behind) than because of what you do want (improved communication abilities, increased cultural awareness, etc.), then taking some time to create a positive experience for yourself in your family’s new language may help change your perspective and motivation. It also just might create an excitement and joy that will turn a to-do into a want-to-do.

Julia Kraut

A lifelong lover of studying language and culture, Julia Kraut holds a master’s degree in Spanish language and culture from the Universidad de Salamanca Cursos Internacionales (in Spain), and another in Études du monde anglophone (Anglophone cultural studies) from Aix-Marseille University in France. She also has BAs in international studies, theatre arts, and medieval studies from Pennsylvania State University, where she was a Schreyer Honors Scholar. After teaching Spanish in a K–8 setting, Julia married a Francophile: Dr. Joshua Kraut, author of the French for Children series. They moved to France, where Julia taught English in elementary and middle schools and at the university level, all while continuing to study Spanish and Catalan, a romance language spoken in Andorra and parts of Spain. Out of all the classes she has taken, her favorite involved studying how Spanish evolved from Latin during the Middle Ages. As a researcher, she is particularly interested in how creativity and play affect learning, and in how our understanding of the past is meaningful to us in the present.Julia is the author of the Spanish for Children series and the Song School Spanish series. Her children enjoy asking her to sing the “Sit on Your Silla Song” from Song School Spanish Book 1 to all their friends.

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