As a career coach I’m constantly stunned by how unprepared kids are for the workforce. Teachers and parents spend tons of time telling kids to get good grades and get into a good school, but no one mentions that good grades actually have little correlation to workplace success

There are three things that make for a successful adult: Gritresilience, and emotional intelligence. I strive to keep our homeschool focused on those three things. Those three things have been the key to my every workplace win. Here’s what never mattered: I’m fluent in French. It’s been on my resume forever, but it has never ever gotten me a job. You have to be a lot more than “fluent in French” to be useful in the workforce speaking French.

I have a huge farm vocabulary because I spent a summer on a French chicken farm, but there is no way I could write PowerPoint slides to present a marketing plan to a Fortune 100 company. I am not fluent in THAT kind of French. And I wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to use my French to cater to French consumers. In Mozambique, or Quebec, or France. I don’t know enough about the culture.

But you know what? Learning a language taught me what really does get you a job: grit, resilience and emotional intelligence. Because in order to learn a language you have to think in different ways. Construct sentences in new patterns, take cultural differences into consideration. Learning another language shows you how to be a more flexible thinker, and speaking in an accent that is not quite yours, with verb tenses that are not quite yours, that is something that takes courage and self-confidence.

In my family we focus on self-directed learning. As much as possible, I let my kids learn what they want. So I told them they have to learn a language, but they chose which they wanted. My son told me he wants to learn Arabic. We are Jewish and he said, “The only way things are will get better in the Middle East is if Jewish kids learn Arabic.”

I tried not to show shock, because it might make him doubt his own instinct.

I did not tell him that Arabic would not be useful to him at his bar mitzvah. And I didn’t tell him I don’t know anyone who can help if it’s difficult. I didn’t tell him I was hoping for something more conventional, like Spanish. What I did tell him was, “You’ll have to learn it online, by yourself.”

He was thrilled.

And I realized that another benefit to learning a language is that kids can learn one more thing that the adults around them don’t understand. It’s amazing to my son to be able to tell me things I don’t know. And it’s amazing to me to watch my son learn on his own. To me, that’s what homeschooling is all about.

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28 replies
  1. Tracy
    Tracy says:

    “…I let my kids learn what they want. So I told them they have to learn a language…” – wait, what??!!

    Craziness aside, I love the language choice and your reaction to it. I know lots of people who can help if it is difficult or if he just wants to write/talk with an Arabic speaker.

    It also reminds me of when I was 8 and my family went on holiday to Egypt. We had an amazing tour guide and I asked her if she would teach me Arabic. She said yes, if I would teach her something in return. I offered up swahili and she said no, it was not an economically viable lesson for a tour guide. At the time I thought she was so rude, now I admire her career focus.

  2. sarah
    sarah says:

    Check out you pay a teacher to skype with your kid for an hour or so each week, to guide and correct pronunciation. Might be helpful. :)

  3. jessica
    jessica says:

    I’m was reading an article by a hedge fund manager (will try to find the link) and the reporter asked him what is the best second language to have.

    He replied: English.

    He said, globally, everyone else’ second language is English. People want and need to know English.

    I’m might be missing the context here, but it changed my view point on language quite a bit.

    I don’t know if I would push my kids to learn another language academically. We’ve talked moving to different parts of Europe, and in doing so the language would be naturally picked up.

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    “You probably won’t use a language you study. But so what?”- I hear people use this to defend traditional school. So what if you don’t need to know when the Pilgrims landed on plymouth rock, you are gonna learn it because I say so.

    I don’t plan on forcing my kids to choose a foreign language to learn. I will definitely encourage them to learn one or more and will explain the benefits of it, but I won’t force it. I’m sure as long as there are youtube videos for it they would be interested.

    My kids are totally into computer programming right now, so that is a different language, right? :P

    • Tracy
      Tracy says:

      Absolutely! Computer languages definitely count, each one of them:
      Think in different ways – tick!
      Construct sentences statements in different ways – tick!
      Take cultural differences into consideration – (that javascript crowd is so different from those python people) – tick!

      Maybe not so much the accent thing but definitely takes courage, self-confidence, grit & resilience!

  5. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    The flip side is that if you don’t powerfully facilitate learning another language, then you are forcing your child to be mono-lingual.

    And it really takes a lot of parental pushing, because any other way of learning besides immersion is pretty much a waste of time.

    But what kid is able to move to a foreign country all on their own?

    Okay, so the child doesn’t have to spend a summer on a French farm. There is the internet, after all.

    They can watch videos on-line. Except it’s extra tough for mother-language-english kids because so much media is made for us. It’s actually quite difficult to find un-subtitled content in a foreign language.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      This is important, because immersion is the key. Where do you find enough video content? If we’re going to use French as the example, are there a lot of French television shows or cartoons that we can stream or watch online?

  6. karelys
    karelys says:

    I had to learn another language to not just survive but thrive. And it opened up my world wonderfully. Beyond job opportunities and the practicalities of being Spanish/English bilingual in our country, the beauty of it spreads out farther.

    I didn’t know this but apparently I have no qualms with going against the grain of what’s prescribed as normal and acceptable in society.

    The world used to be very scary to me. But once I learned another language it was very easy to look at all cultures and see the points that connects every culture (believe it or not, everyone is super similar across the globe), and the points that make them so different.

    As a first time mother when something seemed so difficult to accomplish I would take myself out of the American (even the Mexican) context and I’d try to see life and parenthood, even faith, from another angle. What would I do if I was from Switzerland? what if I had lived my whole life in Japan? what would be normal? They do things pretty differently and their kids seems to be physically healthy, our way is not the only way.

    In our household there are certain things that are not and won’t be negotiable. Like healthy balanced eating. “I don’t care if you don’t like broccoli, find the equivalent and eat it.”

    “We don’t hit people when we don’t get our way and we’re upset.” Non-negotiable.

    And as for learning, it will be the same in some areas. Like language. Pick a second one. Whichever one. And learn it.

    Especially because once you learn one it’s so much easier to figure out your way around another one.

    And I don’t think this is anti-unschooling. For me it’s just parenting.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      When I was a younger parent I would say that certain things were non-negotiable. For me it was sports, it was non-negotiable, my kids had to know a sport because of all the benefits from it! Team building skills, being physically active, having a goal and striving to meet it, these were all things that I considered important. I did every sport in school and my husband played football, we love sports and cheer on our teams religiously.


      Then my kids got older, and they have zero interest in sports or anything athletic. So what I have learned is to parent the children that I was given, in an unconditional parenting manner, and unlearn parenting by what I wanted my children to be. We all have a vision of what our kids will be like, but for me, it didn’t turn out the way I envisioned.

      My children are gifted, intense, curious, and are passionate about many things relating to science. I have to parent them very differently because of the way they are wired and think. So, there are other ways to learn team building and goal setting without sports. I just have to find what works for them, even though it’s not what I planned for.

      Like languages, there are other ways to learn those valuable skills. From reading your thoughts over the years, I find it hard to believe that you would force your child to do anything that he adamantly didn’t want to do. The best thing we can do is to encourage them, and explain why learning a language is useful and beneficial and let them come to the conclusion themselves that they should learn a foreign language.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        For me, the principle of unschooling has done more than free my mind off the school system frame. It has also changed the way I view education.

        I know for most, learning a language falls under the “education” and “learning” category. But for me it’s about parenting.

        I know that a lot of what we teach our kids is very personal and important to us as parents. I dealt with an eating disorder for very long. My health is much better but it still struggles. And I have to constantly adjust my frame of mind because of how destructive it was.

        So eating competence is high up on the priority list to each my kids.

        My husband’s history and relationship with food is disorganized but not an eating disorder. For him, eating healthy is a thing that you do, you go out of your way for. Something that requires effort. Not something that comes naturally.

        So even though learning eating competence is about learning and is about education, for us it’s imperative and it’s just part of parenting.

        The same has happened for things like languages, manners, etc.

        Learning a language is less about education and more about “just the way you are.” It’s just a way of being.

        Your kids took up coding naturally. But at the same time that’s their environment. It’s kind of expected. You and your husband….that’s what you talk about on a normal day to day basis – technology and space-y stuff.

        Just like how we end up liking because of familiarization the food that is normal to our family, I think kids start out their education journey from what is normal to their families. And then they start deciding whether or not they like, tolerate, or hate something. Then they branch out.

        My kid eats Mexican food like crazy because that’s what’s available. And he speaks partially Spanish and partial English. Because that’s what’s available.

        He tried to play guitar and piano because that’s what he sees his grandfather doing.

        So when I say that learning a language is going to be non-negationable…yeah…I will probably drop it if the kid absolutely hates it. But the truth is, when it becomes part of the parenting style it’s not just education, it’s like teaching manners, or teaching to have a taste for ethnic food, or music.

        It’s just the environment that soaks you.

        I like how unschooling breaks the barriers of education and parenting. I really love this. It’s very….pre-industrial revolution kind of life. In a way :)

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Ah yes, learning simply by your environment.

          If you are going to have lots of languages spoken and musical instruments being played etc, you will easily pick that up vs if it’s never around and suddenly is forced learning (which is what I assumed at first!)

          Got it!

    • Tracy
      Tracy says:

      Ok so then what if your kid picks Arabic, or Catalan or Klingon. Then what?

      How do you (or Penelope) ensure the brief has been met? A test? Drop ’em in a foreign country and see if they find their way home?

      • karelys
        karelys says:


        And then, of course, working like crazy to go on a sweet vacation to the place where you can use the language. It’d be an incredible experience with a goal.

        I am not sure why but I love vacations that have a goal. Or work vacations where you do both: accomplish something towards your big goals and also have fun and relax.

  7. Amy
    Amy says:

    In third grade, musical instrument instruction started in my school. My parents said I could play whatever instrument I wanted. I chose the harp. They said no, not the harp. I said ok, the bagpipes. They said no, not the bagpipes. How about something like trumpet, clarinet or flute? I took flute. Unsurprisingly, I quit before high school. Still wonder what would have happened with the bagpipes……

    • Jen
      Jen says:

      When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to be a singer. Instead, my parents sent me to violin lessons. Dance classes. Guitar lessons. Trumpet lessons so I could play in the middle school band. I dropped every single one as soon as I was in the public high school and could sign up for choir. Then I auditioned for a higher level choir (and got in). I sang through college and beyond. More than 20 years after that first high school choir, I still don’t play an instrument but just paid another semester’s member dues for my audition-only semi-pro choir. Funny how we often know what is right for us at such a young age.

      In other words, it’s definitely not too late to learn to play the harp or bagpipes. You should give it a try. :)

    • L -- Mama(e) in Translation
      L -- Mama(e) in Translation says:

      Thanks/ Obrigada Xavier! I was going to write the same thing. And in case people don’t know, Lusophone means Portuguese speaking. ;-)

      (I just happen to teach Portuguese. I’m pretty fluent in French too, but it hasn’t helped much so far ;-) )

  8. malaika
    malaika says:

    I love using Babbel (EU-funded) and podcasts free on iTunes to learn languages. I’ve studied 3 languages in school and four on my own, and on a daily basis speak at least four different languages. It is worth it and it is useful! But learning a language doesn’t happen on a classroom or on the internet. It happens when you are face to face with someone, trying to share with them something you feel is important.

    Ps, Mozambique is not French-speaking.

  9. MBL
    MBL says:

    Hey, what happened to the minecraft post link right after “You’ll have to learn it online, by yourself.”? That was a good thread with good comments.

    I was going to say that that is exactly how I use minecraft. I showed a video to my daughter (then 8) and asked if she would like to try it. If so, after showing her wikiminecraft, she was completely on her own. I told her it was all hers and neither her father nor I had any desire to learn about it. (Of course we know FAR more than we want to anyway, but…)

    She asked me about a couple of things and, meeting a blank stare, went to work. The amazing thing was that she started googling and wiki-ing other topics herself that same week. (We had been her personal research team up until then.)

    Also, since you can’t easily edit “books” that you have written in minecraft, she actually started caring, a bit, about spelling and punctuation.

  10. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    My 14 year old son has decided to learn Arabic too… We speak French, Spanish and English and he wanted something “different”, ok, why not? I have bought book and the fact is that it looks interesting and I think we will learn together, then we could practise together. I love the answer of your son. I didnt’ know you speak French, c’est très bien ça !

  11. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I’m sure PT’s rationale is the same one many colleges use when requiring language study as a prerequisite for entrance or graduation requirement. Or many high schools use. Mind the gap!, as they say, between theory and praxis.

    Language study worked out a little different for me than it did for PT. It’s the first thing I found I was unusually good at. It’s also the first thing I hired a tutor for (at 12, in the rural south, paid from my paper route money). It’s the thing that got me my first good jobs. There’s no mystery how such things as early interest, strong aptitude, and financial remuneration might be linked. It does seem peculiar, however, when I realize I never studied language successfully in school. (Mind the gap!)

    By this time, I’ve studied eight languages and am fluent in four. I’ve worked full-time in three. My language skills have gotten me many jobs, up to a six-figure salary. For those so inclined, I consider language study a good use of time.

    For the first several years of my son’s life, he had a negative reaction to people speaking other languages than English around or to him. He would literally cover his ears and cry. That put an end to any plan to raise him polyglot from birth.

    He’s ready and eager now at 10 to start learning. I picked Spanish, our nation’s (and the world’s) second language, and am teaching it in our coop to him and his friends. It’s going great. As I told the kids, it’s like a college class without the 26 kids who really don’t want to be there (I’ve taught hundred of college students). He’s close to the age when I started to get fascinated with other language, and goes around asking me the word for things all day long now.

    Arabic is a really cool language, a fun one to learn. I studied it for about a year (extension school FTW!) and then had to stop because I moved to Brazil to speak Portuguese all day. I’d like to study it again once I have more time (my kids take all of mine and don’t give it back).

    Also, it’s untrue that Arabic would be entirely unhelpful to a boy at his Bar Mitzvah. Arabic has a lot in common with Hebrew, and it would likely be easier to learn one after learning the other. It’s a great choice.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      My SIL is fluent in 3 by purely academic learning. She only moved to the countries (france, Germany) after learning the language.

      Is it a talent of some to be good at language?

      As an aside:
      I know many families that moved to the US not knowing English and became fluent rather quickly. It is fun watching the family dynamic as parents are semi lost in translation and the kids have to translate. I noticed, though, the parents that were more committed to English took classes to fully understand and learn the language. Regardless I think this is actually, while stressful, a fun bonding experience for a family.

  12. marta
    marta says:

    I’m in Portugal (another lusophone country ;) where ALL kids start learning English as a second language at around 2nd or 3rd grade, and a third language (French, Spanish or German) at 7th grade (together with English). English is learnt until the 12th (and last) grade. We have movies and tv with subtitles, which is another great way to learn all languages. At least to have contact with their differences. If you grow up watching Swedish series (Pippi, The Children of Bullerby) or Soviet classics, as we did in the 70s and the 80s you sure can tell the difference.

    However, despite Portuguese being one of the most spoken languages in the world (and the 3rd European language, before French), few English-speaking people learn it, so it becomes quite invisible on mainstream media (specially in the States).

    I am a translator by chance and I only have to thank my school education for that. I’ve worked as an academic researcher in History (MA in History), in journalism (both tv and print) and now, as so I can be able to work from home and be around my 4 kids, I do film, article and book translations.

    I’ve lived in Italy for 3 years in my late 20s but the grammar , even though it is quite similar to the Portuguese and French I learnt in school, still baffles me precisely because I never studied it, I just picked it up incidently, through so-called immersion.

    So, definitely, I believe in studying the laws of grammar to be the most fluent speaker/writer you can be. Also, I believe in starting early – the earlier the easier for your brain to pick it up.

    I think the only place in the world people in general do not realize the importance of foreign languages is the US – gigantic land mass with fairly small foreign-speaking minorities (unlike the former Soviet Union, say, or Canada). It is important to broaden your mind, both intellectually, culturally and emotionally. It is important to get jobs. It is important whenever you travel – countries in Europe are small and border on diferente language countries – and so on.

    So, yeah, Arabic, why not?

    But your approach to unschooling seems to be less “alternative” or “ultimate” or “groundbreaking” everyday (re: the previous post as well…). But that’s for another comment ;)

    • karelys
      karelys says:

      I, too, think that in the US people feel less of an urgency for learning foreign languages.

      It may not immediately translate to money earned. But the connection with the world is immeasurable!
      Just like how traveling will teach you things that won’t automatically translate into a job that pays you money, I don’t think that’s the point of it all. Just like making money is not necessarily the point of education.

      Yes, we need money to survive and thrive because that’s the currency of our culture. But then there’s the other layer. No one says “I am going to pay you $25K more a year just because you have this piece of paper that says you’re educated.”

      People pay you more because you’re more efficient. You bring something else to the table. And through education, people do that. When they know how to use it.

      No one is going to say “let me pay you more money just because you’re a polyglot!” but they will pay you more if your skills connect their business and position it to do much better than without you.

      • marta
        marta says:

        Very well put, karelys.

        By the way, I find your comments very interesting and a bonus in PT’s blog. Also, I admire the way you express yourself – I understand your native language is Spanish and you come from Mexico. As I’ve said, apart from a 4 month period in my 20s in London I’ve never lived (though have visited) in na English-speaking country. I can do translation from English into Portuguese (or from French, Spanish and Italian into Portuguese) but not the other way round. So, my formal education plus my curiousity made me fluent and gave me an asset job-wise, but did not make me a bilingual individual. Immersion (living or studying since an early age exclusively in one language) will do it. But not when you’re past your teens, I suppose. I know only about 3 or 4 people who are almost bilingual starting in adulthood. All the others I know are bilingual from birth-6 years old.

        I wonder whether language is similar to other skills you generally learn in your first 6 to 7 years – Reading, writing and basic math. Brain scientists seem to think someone who has only learnt to read after their youth years (after 19 or 20 years of age, say) has a completely different brain from a young reader. Not better, not worse, only wired differently but, because of that, less fluent and less “natural”…

        Maybe it is the same with music as well…

  13. Anna
    Anna says:

    Hey Penelope !

    I come from a country where people speak four languages and the two most important ones are French and Arabic. My parents tried to make me learn arabic with a private tutor but he was so boring I actually never really learned anything. I can still read stuff in Arabic, it impresses my European and American friends.

    The one crazy genius idea they had though was have American tv at home, and especially American cartoons. I am now in my early 20s, my first language is an African one, my second language is French and my third language is English. And if you heard me speak English, you’d think I’m American. So if you want your kids to learn to speak Arabic with ease, just find a way to make them watch their favorite cartoons or their favorite videogames in arabic. Make it fun.

    I think your son’s idea is beautiful. I am muslim myself and reading this made my day.

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