How can a parent switch the language spoken with a toddler?

 

Question

Hi from Turkey!

I have twins, a boy and a girl and we have been speaking in our mother tongue since they were born, and it’s been 20 months.

I can speak English fluently and I wonder if I start to speak only in English with them to make them bilingual how much do they get confused seeing their father has started to speak a different language they have never heard before.

Their mother speaks her first language by the way. Is it better to mix two languages at the beginning or not?

Thank you for responding.
Basar

Answer

Dear Basar

Thank you for your questions about switching the language you speak with your toddler twins.

Giving our children another language is a fantastic gift that will last a life time and sometimes even to the next generation! 20 months is a good time to introduce English as an additional language to your twins, and there are different approaches you can take when doing so.

I would not recommend switching abruptly from Turkish to English, as your little girl and boy by now are used to hearing you speak only Turkish and this is what they can understand. Starting to speak only English would not linguistically confuse them, i.e. it would not affect their Turkish, but of course they would find it strange if they suddenly could no longer understand their father.

The best way to start with a language with small children is to use songs and rhymes. If they already know some children’s songs and you can find the lyrics for them in English, this is perfect, but you can also begin with any songs they are fond of. The best ones are those that have actions as well, such as “Wheels on the Bus”. Similarly, use rhymes and games to bring in English – check out the British Council’s website for ideas.

Another excellent way of making English a part of your day is to use monolingual toys – this is a completely acceptable situation for a toddler, and one which I am successfully using with my own grandson. Read my article for suggestions on how to use them.

Reading books is of course important. Initially you can translate simple books which they already know in Turkish and gradually move to more complex ones and ones you read only in English.

If/When you watch children’s programs, always pick ones in English. Watch them together with your kids and be there to explain what happens if necessary. Once your twins have learnt some English, you can also do the explaining in English.

If your wife knows English, then what you could also do is to sometimes speak English with her, so that your twins get used to hearing more English in the home. Since you live in Turkey and I presume most of your family and friends speak Turkish, your children will get enough Turkish exposure, and Turkish will continue to be their dominant language. The challenge will be for you to find enough English exposure for them. Also check whether you can find children’s playgroups in English in your area – or maybe you could even start one if you find other parents who are interested!

Once you feel that they understand a little bit and they accept that you speak English, then you can dedicate certain activities or times to English. It is important to make these times fun and engaging for your little toddlers, so that they want to take part. Gradually increase the time you speak English until you feel that it is okay to switch completely. The benefit of a total switch is that they will get used to always speaking English with you and will not be as tempted to resort to Turkish when answering to you.

For any of the activities, be prepared for resistance from your twins. Small children like routine and prefer things to stay the same, so you need to equip yourself with a lot of patience. At times you may well think “Why am I doing this?” but keep in mind your reasons for starting and remember the great reward – you are bringing up bilingual twins!

As requested, I will send you details about individual family language coaching in a direct message to you.

Wishing you a successful bilingual 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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