How to introduce English to a toddler in an environment with limited language resources?

 

Question

Dear Coaches

I can’t say how grateful I am to you because of this wonderful website!

I and my wife have an 18-month-old daughter. We are both Iranian from North West region in which Azeri (a dialect of Turkish language) is the dominant spoken language. Farsi (Persian) is the only official language of the country being mandatory to be used exclusively in educational system, TV channels, books and newspapers etc.

The Azeri is the mother tongue of about 20 million people and almost all of them except the aged locals would be called bilinguals. We speak Azeri to each other, family, friends, relatives, and on the street as most of the people in the region do. But when it comes to say texting each other or reading a novel, it will be in Farsi! Frequently switching between these two languages is quite normal.

My wife, my brother and sisters as well as my in-laws speak quite an acceptable level of English (IELTS score would be 6-7) but all taught as a foreign language, then studied on their own. But I am one step ahead of them as I did my Master’s degree in Canada and my career in Iran demands speaking and writing in both Farsi and English. Besides I watch lots of English movies!

Unfortunately, the English learning process at schools is poor, inefficient and in a very and obsolete way. English exposure in the environment is almost none except inside of the English languages private institutes. There are bilingual or English-speaking nursery schools in the city.

My daughter’s vocabulary is about 40 to 50 words now, almost all of them in Azeri. She loves music and rhythm. We’ve played music for her even before her birth. It seems that she will never get tired or bored listening to songs. Now she listens to her mom’s bedtime songs and short rhythmic stories in Farsi (we could not find appropriate English versions; also, Azeri versions do not exist). Although Azeri and Farsi are two totally different languages (come from Ural-Altaic and Indo-European respectively), they share lots of contemporary words. Educated people talking to each other use a lot of Farsi words and phrases but the Azeri grammar structure is kept unchanged.

We (parents) have dropped accent during university time (at capital, Tehran), so I can say we are oral-native in Azeri and full-native in Farsi. Writing or reading in Azeri is not part of any plan as there is no need for that. For our child we will stick to spoken mother tongue at a maximum. Then is it alright to consider Farsi-Azeri not two languages but one and half language?!

Her mom is currently housewife and the primary caregiver (thank you for her kind devotion). We do not have and cannot find any native English-speakers around, so we have to rely on online sources, videos, satellite channels and etc. Not sure if all standard English paper books are shipped to Iran. I may be able to speak and write proper English relating to scientific and technical aspects of my career but I’m not sure if I’m qualified enough in kids’ English. I don’t know how native English parents would talk to their toddlers, so I have a dilemma about misleading her. No need to mention that I would do anything to improve our English alongside her.

I wonder how and when we should introduce English language to our daughter. I’m sure she will be native in both Farsi and Azeri like her parents before puberty. My concern is the English language, as I want her to become native or at least sound like a native. So trilingualism is my wish but I don’t know how to start.

I will be so thankful for your kind advice,
Behrooz

Answer

Dear Behrooz

Thank you for your fantastic feedback – glad you find our website helpful!

Your question is about raising your daughter to become trilingual in Azeri, Farsi and English. As you mention, she will no doubt acquire both Azeri and Farsi at a young age, so your biggest challenge is bringing her up speaking English as well. (For the purposes of my answer, I do consider Azeri a language alongside Farsi and English, even if you have no plans to teach your daughter to read and write the language).

Your goal is for your daughter to sound like a native English-speaker. For this, you need to keep in mind that she will learn the kind of English she is surrounded by and interacts in. If you are her main source for English exposure, then, whatever accent you have, she will pick up as well. However, I would not be too concerned about this. Just like you have done, she may well get the opportunity to hone her English when she is a bit older by spending time in an all-English surrounding. She can still grow up becoming a fluent English-speaker with the help of her dedicated parents!

Since your daughter shows interest in songs and rhymes, this is a great way to introduce English to her. I understand your concerns about not knowing “kids’ English”, however, as your skills are at a high level, it will not take you long to catch up with the vocabulary, rhymes and stories to communicate in English in a way that feels natural with your little daughter. I sense from your letter that you have the time and commitment to do this.

There is an abundance of resources available online, and a great place to start for you is to visit the British Council website, which has plenty of English learning material aimed for children. By listening to the songs and rhymes you can pick them up and use them with your little girl. The site also has many useful tips for parents on how to introduce English to your daily routines, as well as links to other resources.

As soon as you have learnt your first lullaby, song or rhyme – use it with your daughter. This way you will get accustomed to speaking English with her. It is best to set aside some time each day for it, to get into the routine. I know from other parents’ experience that unless you make a plan for when to speak a different language than the one you normally speak, it easily happens that you forget to do it, and all of a sudden, a year has passed and there was never the perfect time to start. Start now.

Don’t worry too much about the odd mistakes or “misleading her” – the more you listen to English children programmes, the better you will get. Rather concentrate on consistently speaking English with her every day and slowly increase the amount of English you use throughout the day. It will take a lot of commitment from you, so focus on the positives. Once your daughter is a bit older, you can watch programmes together and then chat about the characters and the story to reinforce the vocabulary.

I always recommend reading a lot of books to support the language acquisition. If you are unable to find books in English, check out the online Children’s Library which has kids’ books in several languages. There are even some which you can find both in Farsi and English!

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

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