Question

Hello and thank you for the blog!

I am a second generation Swedish speaker (Swedish mother) that has only been to Sweden for holidays and I live in Canada. Now I am trying to teach my 3.5-year-old son and 3-month-old daughter Swedish. I’ve been speaking Swedish on and off since my son was born (as consistently as I could). There are no other Swedish-speaking children in the city where I live.

I have two scenarios that I was hoping for some help on:

My son mostly responds to me in English with occasional 1 or 2 word answers in Swedish. I’ve noticed that when I speak to my son in Swedish he understands me (he can do what I request/ or can translate to English.) But when I ask him how to say something in Swedish he doesn’t know how to. Do you have suggestions on how to strengthen his active memory of the language?

Secondly, when he watches videos in Swedish he often can’t understand different accents/ fast speech. I usually let him watch the video once and then discuss what happened in it. Then we watch it again and I repeat what is said either in Swedish or English depending on the complexity. Then he watches it a third time. Do you have any other suggestions on how to help him understand accents other than mine? Or how to use videos effectively?

Thanks,
Mona

Answer

Hi Mona,

My guess would be it isn’t an active memory issue, but more of a habit and encouragement issue related to Swedish. Please check our previous answers on passive bilinguals and how to change that here and here and also read this blog post on the topic as well as this and this post. You can find more ideas on how to make using Swedish fun here.

Your active memory question is a good one in itself though. Children need to build complex language from simple building blocks just like adults. They will not do this unless they have a need or interest to do so. If your child is only giving one-word answers, the best way to build their language is to require more from each answer. For example, when my daughter started speaking, she started out saying “want” for whatever it was. However, after some time, I would only respond if she said “I want”, then I increased it to “I want a ____”, then we changed it to “Please give me a ____”. Once she had mastered a structure, we added complexity or changed it to build her language skills.

Additionally, you can supply the language to the child at first, but absolutely must stop supplying it at some point and just wait expectantly. If you always give the child the language, they will take the path of least resistance and never really focus on remembering it. This is also why I recommend asking your child to repeat it several times when you start adding a level of complexity or introducing a new structure, so that it goes beyond 7-second short-term memory and actually becomes acquired in long-term memory networks.

For your video question, your current strategy is a good start. Ideally, children need to understand 80-90% of a piece of media for them to stay focused and learn from it. So the most important thing is to choose appropriately levelled media. You can also boost comprehension by showing it in English first if that’s your child’s stronger language or doing some kind of preparation activities like giving them an outline of the story or pre-teaching some vocabulary. Picture stories are a good follow-up to this as well as the child can use images from the story to retell it.

Accents are an important part of language learning and conversational speech often follows different pronunciation patterns than slower speech (“I wanna get outta here” vs “I want to get out of here”). Keep exposing your child to different accents and this ability will grow organically on its own. Just keep giving different media – videos, apps, read-a-loud stories – and let your child keep listening to the ones they really like.

Hope this helps, please let us know how it goes with your bilingual toddler and please do ask any follow-up questions by commenting below.

Kind regards,
Nick

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