This is a matter I have spent some time pondering how to address. I have on a few occasions been asked for advice by young wannabe linguists and/or their parents. They wanted to know how best to start learning and practising the skills that they would later need in full-time translation. When you consider the recent cut-backs in humanities funding in the UK, and the general under-emphasis on foreign languages in the English-speaking area, I felt it important to do my bit to find ways to help youngsters* in their learning of a foreign language. I’ll address the “why” in an upcoming post. I hope this post will prove helpful and informative for both parents and youngsters. I am also sure some translators and parents will have their own helpful tips to add – so please, take a look at the comments (once people start posting them!).

*NB: I have used the term “youngsters”, as I find it less patronising and more inclusive than “children” or “teenagers”. I also find the term “kids” is a bit inappropriate for British English usage, as no child of woman borne that I have ever known has ever quite resembled a goat…

It’s not just about the books…

A key point to remember when encouraging a youngster to learn a foreign language is that youngsters learn differently. Education today is very different compared to how when we were growing up (I know, I am a relative youngster myself, but schools today still look like the Bridge of the Enterprise compared to when I was at school). Today, youngsters are used to gadgets, greater levels of interactivity with their learning tools and more task-switching to keep attention levels high. If you wrap a big German-English Langenscheidt and Hammer’s book of modern German grammar up in exciting wrapping paper for your youngster’s birthday it is unlikely to inspire or please many youngsters, even if it DOES have a really nice bow in their favourite colour.

The above is not to suggest that books do not have their place – they do – but choose carefully, preferably with your youngster. Many recent dictionaries now have more than just black and white in the print, making them easier to read. Things like this can really help readers. Even people without dyslexia or other related conditions can tire quickly when faced with a wall of black and white Times New Roman (many people say Arial or Tahoma are easier to read).

Okay, a bit about books…

Of the boring basics, I would suggest your youngster has a good quality, easy to read and comprehensive dictionary, appropriate to their level (perhaps a little above, to encourage their curiosity). At more advanced levels, there is nearly always a generally accepted gold standard producer. For German and English, I would personally favour the Collins / Langenscheidt joint publication.

It may be that there is some basic grammar explained in the dictionary you purchase. However, a good quality, well-explained, clearly laid-out grammar book with exercises (or one with the rules, and another with the exercises) is a good idea. Here it is especially important not to go for something too dull or unclear in its layout. I don’t know if it is just me, but I really hated learning grammar through exercises. I found it much easier to learn it through talking to people and studying the rules… (more about the fun ways later). I do however know many students who liked to learn through short exercises.

If your youngster is enthusiastic, you could try out some language textbooks geared towards younger learners. This however you will need to thoroughly research. I would recommend steering clear of some of the Teach Yourself and similar home courses, as these are geared towards adults. Children learn differently, picking up some things a lot faster, and other things slower. These courses are usually drier, whilst some emphasise the quick ability to get a message across before a deeper understanding of the language and the way it works (or, is written), that may end up slowing later progress as they have to learn things they were never taught previously, or even un-learn things previously simplified so much that they were taught incorrectly. This is especially true when it comes to languages that do not use a standard Western European script. Check the Amazon reviews or ask a native-speaker or language teacher for advice. Of course, make sure your child is interested in learning in this way on their own time…


(or, ‘Fun ways to learn a language’)

I am still quite a youngster, so can empathise with the boredom young people experience when going through traditional learning methods. Here are some options to encourage your youngster to try to enhance their knowledge and enjoyment of a language and possibly its culture, too.

Exchange programmes

Your youngster’s school, college, local youth group or religious centre may be organising a trip to an area where this country is spoken. This can be a great opportunity to learn more about the language and culture and make lasting friendships. However, make sure the opportunity is not wasted as best as you can by ensuring your youngster (insofar as it is possible) bonds with their exchange partner – spending more time with them and others in the country. This will help to ensure that they will use their language skills more and learn more about the culture. Whilst there, encourage the youngster to interact, form friendships and practice the language. Even if they don’t hit it off with their exchange partner, it may be that they will form a lasting friendship with, say, their exchange partner’s brother or best friend.

English native-speakers can get away with speaking English in many parts of the world, and many natives are happy to speak it back to them, even when you are their “guest” abroad. Try to make your youngster aware of how disrespectful and rude this can be, even if the speaker doesn’t seem to think so. Your youngster may not be old enough to understand the concepts of colonialism and linguistic imperialism, but well, you can try…

When an exchange programme goes exceptionally well, which, hopefully, it should, these bonds can be further fostered and maintained through social media and the telephone. See the later section on this.

Holidays abroad

If you and your family can afford it, this is a great option. Encouraging the youngster to order the bread stick in French, or Breze in German, is a chance for your youngster to feel responsible, helpful, gifted and unique – especially if their knowledge in this area begins to exceed that of their parents. They will associate this feeling of pride and usefulness with being able to speak that language. Furthermore, they will learn more about the country and hopefully the pleasant memories of their holiday there will make them want to come back on their own some day, armed with good knowledge of the language.

Foreign-language films

It’s relatively obvious that this will help people to be inspired by a culture and its language. Anime certainly seems to have done this for Japanese. There is a wealth of films out there in different languages. If you are curious what is out there, how about taking a look at IMDB and searching by language? Alternatively, just try doing a search for “top 20 Spanish films” or “best Japanese science-fiction movies” etc.. Find many in libraries, universities and some schools.

…Use the language features on DVDs

An alternative language learning tip: try activating the subtitles or additional languages on the DVDs you already own. DVDs often have major European languages on the disk alongside the main language, sometimes just as a subtitle, sometimes as an audio track as well. It also helps add variety for your favourite film. You could also try varying the combination (say, German subtitles + English audio, English subtitles + German audio, German subtitles + German audio). Find these in some/many libraries, universities and schools, too.

Foreign books

Some people just enjoy reading. Encourage this spirit by buying them some books in their foreign language. Be careful to keep it at a level they can manage, or, if you are lucky, you might be able to find some bilingual books. I know bilingual German and English books certainly exist. Any bilingual books may be easier to find in the country/ies where the foreign language is spoken. You should be able to buy some foreign language books from standard high-street and online bookstores in your home country, if not, the various websites for Amazon, ebay or others for the other country – most will deliver (see links below).

Language games

There are lots of games you can play based on foreign languages. I used to add a competitive element to conversations with my language buddy with a little game. As an example, I would speak in German and she would answer in English, and I would have to keep speaking in German and her in English. What tends to happen is that someone will accidentally answer in the same language they just heard. At this point, a point is gained by the person who did not foul up, and the language switches. So, if my friend then accidentally answered in German, she must continue speaking in German and I must speak in English, then if I accidentally answer in German, we switch again and my friend gets a point.

There are lots of other games you can either find online or invent. These include games involving flash cards (where you have to match the ‘pairs’, either by playing memory or snap, etc.), games like Articulate (where you describe a word to a partner), or hangman. Plus many more you can invent yourself!

Computer games

A lot of people are surprised by this suggestion, however, not your average 14 year old German schoolboy. Okay, I don’t know that many, but the couple I have met seemed to confirm this. In fluent English.

Whilst non-native speakers of English may already be aware that they might be able to learn something from playing computer games, few probably think about this the other way around. Whilst this is not always effective in your average shoot-em-up (grunts, howls and hisses sound pretty similar in every language), it may be moderately educational in simulation games, to very educational in adventure and action-adventure games where there is extensive dialogue and an emphasis on dialogue choices.

Be aware of some facts about the games and games localisation industry: a) sometimes only the subtitles are localised, and the audio remains the same. b) sometimes a game will not be released in your country, but enjoy some success in its home country. c) the translation of in-game text is sometimes a lot more creative and less literal. d) bad localisation can dramatically impact on the way a game is received, whilst good localisation can sometimes even, potentially, improve the way a game is received abroad. Note: the Final Fantasy series was heavily criticised for poor /inconsistent localisation.

From a translation perspective, games translation and localisation is particularly interesting, and offers a lot to a youngster in educational terms if they are considering a career in languages and/or translation. Games are particularly culture-dependent, using references that must also be seamlessly translated so that they can be understood by the new audience. The texts are often exceptionally creative, filled with word-play, linguistic quirks and devices that assist in the portrayal of a grand, scary, intelligent or unintelligent character. The use of metaphors, slang and cultural references in a high-quality adventure or action adventure game are a good insight into how a language is actually used, and can be used creatively, perhaps even more so than film. Furthermore, the nature of such games is that they are interactive, encouraging the player (or, learner!) to think about what has been said and what is the appropriate response.

Now I have sold you on the idea, you probably want to know what to buy and where to get it. First of all, I suggest you thoroughly check the ratings for each game, as some adventure games (even those without violence) may have language or scenes of a violent or sexual nature that you might not want your youngster to see. As such, some of these recommendations may not be suitable for your youngster.

As a start, I would recommend the game Fahrenheit (‘Indigo Prophecy’ in the US), which, on the UK edition of the disk at least, has foreign language options as part of the standard installation, standard English edition of the disk – you can just switch between any combination of audio and subtitle languages at any point! It definitely had German and French, some others too. Also see the Broken Sword or Fallout series, perhaps Deus Ex 2 and 3 (Deus Ex 1 was only subtitled in its German localisation). I played “Lost Horizon” in its original German and enjoyed it, though the English reviews were somewhat less positive (NB: Lost Horizon would be suitable for most). There are countless suitable adventure games out there.

As for where to get them, I would recommend the foreign ebay (e.g.,,, etc.), your standard British or international/American Amazon online (by checking the language of the product), the respective foreign Amazon (e.g.,, or similar stores. Many will deliver abroad.

Online chat

This is a slightly controversial one, especially if you otherwise have chat banned in your household. For older children who use this anyway, perhaps it is not such a bad thing to encourage, however, if it advances their language skills and friendships with native speakers of foreign languages.

For online chat you can both type to each other (or in a group), or use a microphone and chat online like you would on the telephone. Popular tools that allow both include Skype, MSN Messenger, AOL Messenger, ICQ and Yahoo! Messenger.  For safety and security reasons, I would probably suggest sticking to Skype where possible, and being sure to set the privacy settings appropriately. Skype tends to offer greater stability when using a microphone than other mediums, though remember that it requires a decent amount of bandwidth and a fast, stable connection is better for it (any broadband-speed connection should do). Skype is a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) service that is free to use to chat between two computers. Skype and other VOIP providers also allow cheaper telephone calls to landlines.

Whether just typing to one another or chatting as if you would on the telephone, this is a great chance to strengthen friendships, cultural knowledge, and enhance language skills. This is even better if both parties are happy to take turns in what language they speak (either both speak/write one language for a while and then the other, or, when feeling energetic, each speaks/writes their foreign language, or, when tired, each speaks/writes their native language). Keep these friendships active and your youngster may find themselves invited to stay, or their friend may come to stay with you!

Of course, the standard precautions about online chatting must be taken if you decide to allow your youngster to chat to any strangers online… No personal information, no webcam, no photo exchange with strangers, keep you informed, etc…

Social media and email

As with the above, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and Bebo are great for keeping in touch with friends abroad. Also remember that there are some social networks, such as the German StudiVZ, which are more specific to one area and language (although now with the option to use it in English). The nature of social networks means it is now much harder to lose touch with people – a particular risk when borders and perhaps oceans separate us! Encourage your youngster to write to these friends via Facebook, email, etc., in that foreign language, of course! Perhaps the two can agree to correct each others’ common mistakes, too? Even if they don’t, these media are a great way to stay in touch, just as with the online chat.


I hope this guide has been helpful and given you some great ideas. If you think I missed anything, please, add a comment below. I’d also be interested to hear if anyone else is already using any of these methods, and how they are working / have worked for them. If you take any tips, please, keep us posted on how you get on!