In fact, despite the fact that they hear me speaking English with my parents practically every hour of the day, both of my girls have gone through phases around age 2 when they assumed that I don't speak English at all - I guess because I never speak English to them? - and they would helpfully translate into Arabic whatever my mom had said in English, so that I wouldn't be left out of the conversation!
However, this year, we have a new challenge. My elder daughter's best friend just started first grade at a French-immersion school. My daughter, therefore, decided that she was going to learn French too... which left me wondering how best to go about it. I did take quite a bit of French in high school, and my mom (whom we live with) was a French teacher, so we do at least have some background in the language. But I was pretty sure that sitting the girls down with a textbook and doing traditional lessons would turn them off the idea quite quickly. They're only 5 and 7 years old, much younger than the age that most textbooks, online and computer programs are aimed at.
So, in case anyone else is pondering how to unschool languages to little kids, here's a quick summary of what has and hasn't been working for us so far.
- Apps: I did a bunch of research, and ended up with these two iPad apps that I really like. My girls have learned quite a bit of vocabulary from one, through playing games, and my 7-year-old has gotten quite good at French phonics through the other. The disadvantage of this approach, though, is that I'm pretty far toward the end of the no-screen-time spectrum. My girls only get to use the iPad once in a blue moon, and when they do, they're quite as likely to choose one of the math or programming games for their precious 20 minutes as they are to choose the French ones.
- French Songs: This is the most successful tool so far. We have three CDs of children's songs in French, which we have been playing on repeat in the car since September. The songs themselves are pretty good, so it's not too maddening to listen to, and by now even the baby can sing "un, deux, trois, cha-cha-cha!" They don't always understand everything they're repeating, but they're picking up on some of it, and I figure it's good practice in any case for getting used to what the language sounds like and how to pronounce it.
- Breakfast in French: The only meal where we're consistently sitting down with my mom (our resident fluent French-speaker) is breakfast, so we've been intermittently applying a policy of speaking French at the breakfast table. My mom speaks in French, and the girls insert whatever French words they can remember into their English, as appropriate :) This goes well - when we do it! The same words and questions come up over and over again, in a natural setting. The only hitch is that I'm just not running at full operating speed at that hour of the morning, so I haven't been as enthusiastic in promoting this strategy as I could have been. It's on my to-do-list!
- Picture books in French: I was expecting my girls to love the many wonderful French picture books that we can request via our library system, but actually they haven't been a big hit. They find it frustrating not to be able to understand what the text says, and they find that explanations of the language slow down the plot too much.
And how much have they actually learned? Well, since we started five months ago, the girls have learned to count to 100, the colors, a bunch of animals, various hello/goodbye/thank-you words, and the lyrics, in various states of clarity, to a bunch of French songs. I figure it's a good start, and they're still enthusiastic about it, so we'll keep on going. And try to be better about breakfast.