Motivating Young Children for Learning a Second Language

As I write this, my daughter is 2 years old. I am married to a Japanese woman who speaks English fluently, so we decided to only speak English at home, because she will be exposed to the majority language which is Japanese, outside of the home. She is currently going to a Japanese Hoikuen (pre-school), where she is exposed to Japanese from 9:00 until 17:00.

Although my daughter is using English with us at home, I sometimes worry that soon enough she will only respond to me in Japanese. So I think a lot about how I will motivate her and encourage her to continue with English especially living in Japan.

Ideas to build motivation

In my research, I have come across several helpful concepts and ideas that I hope will help along this journey.

1. Creating the Need

I love Francois Grosjean's idea that one of the key factors leading to language development comes through working with the child's need (Grosjean, 2010).

The need can be different for every child, but some examples are:

  • the need to communicate with family members or friends
  • the need to understand tv, or take part in sports
  • the need to participate in school activities

In this view, understanding your child and what they need can give you hints to know where to invest your energies.

2. Language Specific Puppets

If your child is young (0-3), consider assigning certain toys or puppets to only speak a certain language. (Rita, 2017 - for more on this idea)

For Bilingual Parents

For example, let's say you have two puppets - a frog and a bunny - when you play with your child using the bunny, have the bunny only speak in Japanese. And when you play with the frog, have the frog only use English.

If you start young enough, your child will likely find it natural to use English with the frog and Japanese with the bunny.

For Monolingual Parents

Parents who are not bilingual can do this as well. Instead of using puppets, which requires parents to speak two languages, utilizing tv shows for children, designating one to be viewed only in English and the other in Japanese can promote a similar outcome.

Let's say you have two shows your child loves - Peppa Pig (English) and Thomas the Train (Japanese). In this way, they will know that if they want to watch Peppa they will need to do it in English.

Of course, very young children (0-3) will not get much out of the programs by simply plopping them in front of a screen. There are however ways to promote learning for even young children through screen media.

3. Play Dates with Older Kids

I got this idea from a conversation with a bilingual education consultant named Eowyn Crisfield. She is also the author of a wonderful book called, "Bilingual Families: A practical language planning guide" (2021).

Younger children generally look up to and enjoy playing with kids who are slightly older than they are.

If you are an American living in Japan and you want your child to learn Japanese, then you can use this strategy. If you can arrange a play date with a friend who has a teenager, ask them if they would be willing to play with your kid only using Japanese.

In some cases the teenager might be interested in English so you could offer to then have an English exchange with them after the playdate.


These are all different ways of creating need for the language in your child which will hopefully increase their motivation and desire to joyfully pursue language learning as they grow in age.

As your children grow they will have the ability to create their own motivation. But while they are young, they need help and direction to promote motivation. So let's do what we can while we can.


Crisfield, Eowyn. 2021. _Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide_. Multilingual Matters.

Grosjean, François. 2010. _Bilingual: Life and Reality_. Harvard University Press.

Rita. 2017. “How to Use ‘Monolingual Toys’ to Motivate Bilingual Children.” _Multilingual Parenting_ (blog). March 15, 2017.