Is it important to learn new languages?


As a family we believe it is important to learn new languages. To be world travellers, raising world citizens we believe exploring new countries involves learning about culture, history and language. The length of time we plan to be in a country may well determine how much of the language we are able to pick up and use. At the very least we will always try and be polite and learn phrases to help with keeping us safe diet wise. Being able to ask about gluten and peanuts in our food helps keep us healthy and Jack out of the emergency department!

Is living in a country the best way to learn a new language such as Spanish?

We chose to live in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria for just under a year for a number of reasons. The climate was one reason but the opportunity to learn Spanish was another. We specifically chose Las Palmas as it is the business district and therefore more populated by Spanish locals than tourists. Avoiding the tourist areas of Maspalomas and Puerto Rico in the south for example was a deliberate decision. Our belief is that being surrounded by non-English speakers would force us to learn Spanish.

Apparently one of the best ways to learn a language is by speaking and living surrounded by that language. Once you get over the shock of rarely hearing English spoken it becomes a little easier. To be honest we haven’t heard another native English speaker in months. Learning a language is supposed to be easier for children. Indeed I have read accounts of children going to school and picking up the language within weeks to months! As a home schooling family that is not an option we’re exploring at the moment.

Our television channels are all in Spanish. At the moment we are letting the children watch too many cartoons! But, they are all in Spanish so that counts as foreign language education, yes? They are enjoying them, laughing along and actually starting to pick up a few words and phrases.

Why learn Spanish first?

It is one of the most commonly spoken languages around the world and spoken in many countries we wish to visit someday!

top 10 most spoken languages around the world

Our efforts to learn Spanish – progress so far!

We are surrounded by Spanish speaking locals, many who cannot speak English at all. Result in these cases is that we get by with a mixture of hand gestures and mime. Paul likened me to a mumbling toddler with my efforts. I am coping at the supermarkets when asked if I need a bag or ‘bolsa’ I can politely say, “No thank you!” as “No, gracias!” But when they try to explain a special offer or a voucher etc I have to say, “Lo siento, no hablo español.” or “I’m sorry I don’t speak Spanish!”

We say “Hola” to people we meet in the stores, in the lift or coming out of our building. Saying sorry when the children get in the way of other shoppers at the supermarket. I have used google translate on my phone and shown this to the listener after my efforts to speak the phrase have not been understood.

One thing I will say here is that almost everyone has been polite, friendly and appreciative of our efforts.

Buying Groceries in Las Palmas can be fun!

Grocery shopping can be fun but also stressful due to reading labels and finding safe food. My memory recalls one instance that was not fun. I attempted to pick up an avocado from an area in the supermarket which was not self-service. Silly me hadn’t realised I needed a ticket like the deli counters. Even without understanding the words said I was clearly being ‘told off’. My sensitive self walked away that day minus the avocados! Just couldn’t handle all the stares from everyone else, it was horrible!

Buying fruit and vegetables is generally more fun than that. All labels are in Spanish and you have to weigh a lot of the items, sometimes yourself, sometimes sales assistants do it for you. Choose vegetables or fruit option from the screen on the scales, select the item to be weighed and the machine produces a ticket. The children love this part of helping with grocery shopping and with pictures of items it is easy for them and fun too. Only issue is when you get an error message and are not sure what you did or if the machine is faulty.

Tom using the grocery scale at el cortes ingles in las palmas

We are all learning Spanish!

Paul has the advantage of previously taken Spanish lessons. A night class after he left school, a course at University and has also tried audio tapes before, while commuting to work. He has a good memory (something I struggle with) and has been helping the children learn a few phrases. For example they say, “Gracias por mi comida.” to thank me for their food. They love to ask for agua con gas at the restaurants. That’s sparkling water in case you were wondering. We all know how to identify gluten free food as sin gluten (without gluten). Of course we have also learned how to ask if items are peanut free with our eldest being anaphylactic to peanuts.

Does this contain peanuts? Tiene esto contiene cacahuetes?

Lily in particular is learning to count and enjoys saying her few phrases. She is teaching George which is really cute to watch. Lily is curious about language. While we were in Malta she heard a different language being spoken by a couple on the bus behind us. She politely asked them what language they were speaking and proceeded to be ‘taught’ how to say hello and goodbye in Polish!

learn new languages spanish english kids dictionary with pictures

Children’s Spanish to English Dictionary

We have one book, a children’s English – Spanish pictionary style and that is helping with a few vocabulary words. Lily has spent hours copying out both English and Spanish words as she practices her letter formation. We found it in a book sale here for 5 euros! I had a quick look on Amazon and chose just 4 of the Spanish learning resources aimed at families and children to share with you below. There are 100’s to choose from and I highly recommend you read a few reviews before parting with your hard earned cash!

Are foreign languages taught well in the British education system?

Why after 5 years of French lessons in school do I not feel confident to say I can speak French. Is it the way we were taught through grammar and vocabulary in just one or two lessons a week? Or maybe it was because we were never actually taught useful conversational French? Options included German, Spanish or Latin for one year, I chose German because I liked the teacher.

At a push I think I could visit France and attempt to get on a bus and buy a ticket for the train or be able to read labels in supermarkets. But, actually attempt a conversation with a local? Maybe it was because I wasn’t interested and had no intention of going to live in France! I believe motivation and need are two key successes to learning anything and that includes language. When visiting France once as a teacher with a group of school children there was no real need for us to be able to speak French. We went to EuroDisney so as a tourist destination English was widely spoken.

As native English speakers we are clearly at an advantage. When choosing a second language to learn many people seem to start with English before moving on to another language. Third and subsequent languages then tend to be of a country in close proximity or that shares a border with their home country. Perhaps that is why French is still taught widely in British schools. Spanish, German and Italian come in as options depending on teacher availablity and timetabling.

My School Experience of Learning New Languages!

I had a vocabulary notebook where we had to write lists, learn and pass spelling tests. A great deal of time was spent on grammar and conjugating verbs and other exciting aspects of French or German. There was very little emphasis on speaking and conversation. The sentences we seemed to have to concentrate on were things like; The cat sat on the mat, The cat is under the table, The cat is black. How useful are those when you need to buy a train ticket to Avignon from Paris or buy gluten free bread from the boulangerie?

School was not fun for me, I experienced bullying and isolation. I was a dreamer and spent a considerable amount of time staring out classroom windows. Speaking aloud in class was never something I volunteered for, for fear of being ridiculed. Happy to concentrate on copying chalk board after chalk board of information to be memorised for exams. Sadly I now find that I experience high anxiety, almost a panic attack when attempting to speak another language. I will find a way around this eventually!

Exams and Assessment

OK, so I could possibly ask a simple question, but then be faced with a rapid fire response in a thick dialect from a native speaker! A far cry from the French we were used to hearing from our class teachers. I remember vividly the day of our oral GCSE examinations. Our teacher decided to put on this stupidly thick accent for the audio tapes and most of us ended up being totally confused. Fortunately, we had been given hints on phrases we would probably need to ‘pass’ the test so most of us coped but really had little idea what he was saying! I think I was awarded a B and that grade would have been dragged up by my reading comprehension.

What resources are we using to learn Spanish?

There are many different ways to learn a language and thousands of resources to choose from. At the moment we are listening to and working with Michel Thomas and his learn Spanish audio program. There is a Michel Thomas Total Spanish, Perfect and Starter version. We’re using the total version. Amazon link in text and images below – thanks for supporting us – remember no additional cost to you for any purchases you make through our affiliate links.

What do we think? The children have shown very little interest in this system yet! I am struggling a little with his accent, actually I always have struggled with accents. I do believe it is some sort of auditory processing issue. I just don’t hear some sounds or inflections and seriously, I seem incapable of rolling those R’s!

Languages available Michel Thomas has produced language courses in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Greek, Portuguese, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese! To be perfectly honest we have not made much effort with the program. We have started a few times but keep getting distracted! The course consists of 12 hours of audio so really we should make more time for it before we leave!

The aim of the course is that you go from complete beginner to speaking confidently within just a few hours.

Experiences of New Languages

For the second year of my University degree I actually lived in Finland for 9 months attending an International course in Environmental Science and Forestry. That year was a fabulous opportunity and experience. A memory that has stuck with me is the embarrassment I felt when in a room full of other course attendees being asked to introduce ourselves. We were asked to introduce ourselves briefly and say what languages we could speak.

One after the other students from Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark etc all stood up and introduced themselves. Without fail they could all speak their native language and English and in most cases at least one more language as well. Many could speak 4 or more! The few of us that were native English speakers could only state English.

As part of our orientation we were offered classes in Finnish. I managed to remember how to say please and thank you and order a beer! Fun times were had when we attended a step class and learned to count to four: yksi, kaksi, kolme, nelja! My Finnish flatmates were both keen to learn English and were also learning Swedish and Russian. Joensuu was the town I lived in which is really close the the Russian border.

how to say hello in different languages image

Native & Cultural Languages

New Zealand Maori

We lived in New Zealand for over 10 years and experienced living with Maori. Maori are the original Polynesian inhabitants of New Zealand and have their own distinctive culture and language. There is much respect for their traditions and efforts to keep the culture and language alive. I really struggled to quickly learn the language while I was teaching in a secondary school. I love the traditional war cry, the Haka! Witnessing a Haka up close and I mean within a few metres is literally a hair raising experience. Seeing the All Blacks perform one before an international rugby game is also a special experience to have witnessed.

Any excuse to insert an image of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw  from the All Blacks . We owned a house in Southbridge, New Zealand – the birthplace of Dan Carter! Click image for a rugby haka video compilation. Turn the sound up! There are lots on You Tube I chose just one to share here!

dan carter richie mccaw haka image video

Australian Aborigines

We also lived in Australia for 3 years but I have to say did not have much exposure to Aboriginal culture or language. I would love for these indigenous languages to be kept alive.

Motivation v Compulsory

My concern comes from children having to learn a language that they have no interest in. Or indeed no essential need to learn for general communication within that country. I think it is important for children to learn a language other than their native tongue but feel there should be some choice in that. When children are interested or motivated they learn better and retain more information. If at all disinterested then retention is minimised. Look at many of the UK’s adults who have little to no knowledge of French following 5 years of compulsory language! In my secondary school, German and Spanish were options only and had to fit in with your other choices. Issues arose due to timetable restrictions, but you had to choose one foreign language so most people chose French!

Cultural Preservation

I was born in Cornwall and I love that there is a Cornish language and people committed to keeping that alive. Similarly there is Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, all ancient Celtic languages very much worthy of preservation.

Which language will we learn next?

Experts and those who are able to speak many languages state that once you have learned the first new language, the rest are easier. We believe Portuguese to be similar to Spanish and have plans to visit Portugal so that will likely be next on our list.

chart to show spoken languages around the world

Essential Travel Icons T-Shirt?

Love this Sign T-shirt for Travellers design that I found on Amazon and am very tempted to add one to my travel wardrobe! Just have to decide on black, asphalt, olive, green or navy because they don’t have purple! The idea is you point to the simplified images and use more of the hand gestures and toddler speak that I’m good at!

These are a bit of fun and I think the children would look great in them!

Disclaimer: this is not the only supplier of these T-Shirts on Amazon. There are numerous different designs and colours including ones with 160 icons rather than the 40 pictured in this post. Prices vary between suppliers and sizes so shop around. As with all Amazon links on our site we receive a commission if you purchase. Thanks and remember there is no extra charge to you for using our links.


thank you heart different languages