This is an area of particular interest to me as I was a French major in college and, previous to that, a foreign exchange student in Italy. That said, the absolute best way you can learn a foreign language is to go to the country where the language is spoken. From my own experience, I studied French for 7 or 8 years, yet after living in Italy for 10 months, my Italian was better than my French has ever been. This is because I had to learn Italian in order to live. If anyone would like information on becoming an exchange student (I highly recommend the experience), please e-mail me and I would be happy to answer any questions I can.

That said, if you are seeking fluency in a modern foreign language, and you do not have the opportunity to live in the country where the language is spoken for a substantial amount of time (a few weeks of tourism won’t do it), the second best option is to find a native speaker and learn from him. Another idea that can help is to learn the language with a partner (or better still, the whole family) with whom you can frequently converse.

Remember that, while learning to read and write in a foreign language is important, the most important thing you can do with a language (except perhaps Latin or ancient Greek) is speak it, and if you can read and write in your native tongue, then you will be able to read and write in another as long as you can speak it and learn how to spell properly.

This is where I become conflicted. My oldest daughter wanted to learn Latin. Now, I never actually studied Latin, but my background has helped me help her. She’s using Ecce Romani books that I got from Half-Price Books about 10 years ago–one of the best purchases ever. Here’s the first one: Ecce Romani

She loves it, she’s learning, and I love it, though I do think I do pull out the Henle’s we have as a supplement for grammatical concepts now and then.

When it comes to modern languages, though, I’ve been stymied perhaps as much by my perfectionism as anything. In theory, my children have been studying Italian for years. They’ve used Rosetta Stone, Berlitz Italian for Kids, and Tell Me More over the years, but they haven’t really learned anything. They outsmarted Rosetta Stone and figured out how to answer the “pictures” without ever really learning anything. Berlitz for Kids is great as far as it goes, but that isn’t very far. We were able to sign up for Tell Me More by Aurolog through our library’s website, and it looked great at first–like Rosetta Stone but with actual grammar. However, it quickly became too complicated for them to use without a lot of help from me.

In juxtaposition to this sorry state of affairs, I tutored a young woman in French for several years using nothing but an old textbook, and she can actually speak French. It’s quite wonderful. Now, she was highly motivated to begin with and has a real gift for languages, but it ain’t rocket science, or is it?

All that said, here are my suggestions for helping your children learn a foreign language:

Option 1: Move to the country where they speak the language. If that isn’t possible…

Option 2: I recommend using a textbook in conjunction with a native speaker and/or learning partner. I do not recommend using one of the systems intended for travelers. Those may teach you to ask where the nearest bathroom is, but they won’t teach you to understand the answer. There are no shortcuts to learning a language, as many of those programs advertise, and there is no way to learn a language well without a good deal of memorizing vocabulary and learning grammar. Consider doing this in conjunction with a computer program. Maybe it will work better for you than it did for us. At the very least, that may make the process more fun, especially for a child who enjoys using the computer.

Regardless of whether you decide to go with an old-fashioned textbook or a new-fashioned computer program, it is a good idea to use index cards for vocabulary, writing the word in one language on one side, and the other language on the other. These can be used anywhere when you have a few minutes. It is better to spend 15 minutes per day on a language than several hours once per week. Lastly, if and when you do travel abroad, be certain that you learn to say please and thank you for everywhere you go. Just that small effort will open many doors for you.