Babies and toddlers
During the early years of your child’s “talking career” you may be holding a monologue for much of the time, but this is when you set the foundation for the language and there is a lot you can do to encourage your little one to start talking.
- Make talking your minority language with your child a habit from the very start – actually, why not get used to speaking your language to the bump (whether you are the mum or the dad!)
- Sing to your baby, and not only at bedtime. Articulate your words and make eye contact to create engagement.
- Repeat what your little one says. Initially it will only be random sounds and babble, but confirming the sounds is important.
- Pretend to understand the babbling and lead “discussions” – wait for an “answer” and practice taking turns.
- Have a well-stocked book shelf with children’s books in your language. Choose ones that you also like yourself, as you are going to read them several times. Get used to discussing the characters and the plot with your little one. Make it interactive from the start, although you might just get a
- When you talk, combine actions with words: wave when you say ‘goodbye’ or ‘hello’, point at things when you talk about them. Acknowledge the action when your child uses it.
- Attend play dates and play groups where your language is spoken. Being among other children speaking the language is a great motivation at any age.
- When your little one communicates, with or without intelligible words, show that you are pleased and excited.
- When your toddler says the first word, confirm it by repeating it and showing that you understand. If the word is not in your language, still confirm that you have understood.
- As the vocabulary grows, build on what your child says, e.g. when he or she says “ball” you can say “yes, it’s a yellow ball”.
Keep a language diary about your little one’s new words and phrases, you think you will remember, but trust me, your child’s vocabulary will expand very quickly and soon there are too many precious talking moments not to forget some of them. Create a fun and positive environment for speaking the minority language.
- Continue being the positive role model for speaking your language – this does not mean that you should speak all the time, instead encourage two-way communication.
- Tell and discuss stories based on photo albums – make print-outs of those holiday pictures with grandparents, relatives and friends and talk about the people and places.
- Kids love hand-puppets – use them to introduce new monolingual characters into your play. Give them a “genuine” backstory to support the fact that they only understand and speak the minority language.
- Use ‘I spy’ games to expand your child’s vocabulary. You can do this in any situation – at home, when you are out and about or have to sit in a waiting room (use a magazine if you run out of words).
- Engage in role play with you little one. Let him or her take the lead and immerse yourself in their imaginary world. Help with new words which are needed to move the story forward. Ask open ended questions.
- Find that something which is really motivating for your child. What will make your little daughter or son really want to say something? In our case it was a monolingual pet, Pricken – the Swedish-speaking kitten.
- Use free online video call apps to catch up with grandma and grandpa or any other relative or friend who only speaks the minority language.
- Introduce the terms ‘mummy says’ and ‘daddy says’ (or whoever speaks the language in question) to help distinguish words from different languages. E.g. if your child uses a different language when pointing out a specific thing, confirm that it is right and give the word in your language.
- Engage your kids in discussions in everyday situations, ask for their opinion or advice. Ask why so that they can expand on their answers. And do always answer their “Why?” questions!
- Have patience, wait, relax. Don’t rush your little one or offer the word too quickly. Allow him or her to find the word or to come up with a different expression.
Starting school in the majority language is one of the most crucial stages in a bilingual child’s language development. The minority language may have been dominant in the home until now, but the balance will inevitably tip in favour of the majority language, so your continuing support is vital.
- Stick to speaking your language with your child – don’t make a big deal of situations where he or she uses the majority language. Remember that they have spent the whole day immersed in it. However, always stick to your language in these situations.
- Visits to where the minority language is spoken in the community is arguably the most effective way of encouraging your child to speak it. Being fully immersed in the language through people and media can give your child a real language boost.
- If the majority language is becoming more dominant in the family, e.g. children use it as the language they speak with each other, try to introduce ‘minority-language-only’ days or situations. Depending on what spurs your kids on, you could have incentives for sticking to the right language.
- Treasure hunts are always a popular game. If your child can already read, this will also help with the reading. If you are the one reading the hints, make it a rule that you only answer questions in the minority language.
- Play board games with read-out instructions or questions in the minority language. If you can’t find them where you live, suggest them as birthday presents that the grandparents can buy!
- Small children are eager to help if we let them. If you have more than one child, ask the older siblings for help with teaching their little sister or brother your language.
- Continue singing! Find familiar songs that your child has sung at school and sing them together in the minority language.
- If you are the majority language speaker, ask your child to teach you something in the minority language. Kids love being in the “teacher” role with their parents.
- Leave the room when your child gets going on a Skype call in the minority language. Kids are sometimes inhibited by parents, especially if they are a bit unsure how to express themselves, and perform better on their own.
- Always listen – stop and take the time to listen to what your child has to say. They are small for a very short time.
Teenagers and young adults
Becoming a teenager is another phase when the minority language might lose ground. Peer pressure can lead to your child avoiding using the minority language. Maybe it is not the done thing, perhaps your teen just wants to be like everyone else. Your support is essential so your soon-to-be-adult child can maintain the minority language. They will thank you later!
- While a small child cannot appreciate all the advantages bilingualism brings with it, with a teenager you can discuss for example the benefits of knowing more than one language when you look for a job.
- Money is often a high priority at this age, remind them that if they keep up their language skills this will most likely lead to a higher salary later on.
- Being able to speak another language gives your teenager a bigger choice of schools – maybe they would want to study abroad at some point?
- Find ways of making a connection between their hobbies and the minority language – could you find a fellow enthusiast they could connect with over Skype?
- Look for interesting films in the minority language and watch them together.
- Travelling broadens the mind and deepens the language skills – if possible, help your youngster to take a solo trip to somewhere where he will have to use the minority language. I would start with relatives or friends and take it from there.
- Are there summer camps your teenager could attend, preferably in a country where your language is the majority one? Speaking the minority language with other teenagers will give the language a real lift.
- To support the written form (and so continue increasing the vocabulary) always message in the minority language with your teenager. Even if you get an answer in another language, continue using yours, as it is beneficial for him or her to regularly see the written word.
- A language course in the minority language can sometimes be the most effective way of reinforcing it. Check out the teaching style of the course in advance to make sure it will be suitable for your teen.
- You are the most important role model for speaking your language. Show pride in the language and the culture it represents. Speak it at every opportunity both inside and outside the home. Be the confident bilingual you want your teen to be.
I hope these tips are helpful to you on your journey to raise a confident bilingual!
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All Done Monkey: 40 Ways to Celebrate Turning 40
The Piri-Piri Lexicon: 40 Tips for Parents of Bilingual Children
Discovering the World Through My Son’s Eyes: 40 Things to Do with Kids in Puerto Rico
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As hubs and I prepare for a multilingual household, it’s really helpful to read lists like this. Small steps are easier to follow than simply saying “Make sure you are consistent with the minority language!” I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now, and I want to say that at least half of these have been mentioned at some point in the past. However, I definitely plan to pin this post for when there are little ones.
Hi Annalisa – glad you liked my list and thank you for being a faithful reader of my posts! I am sure all of these points have been mentioned in some context on my blog – it does by now contain more than 300 posts and Q&As! Repetition is the mother of all skill, as they say 🙂
Waow thank you so much for gathering so many useful tips in this article! I will share it today!
You (and your website) became my reference for all questions regarding bilingualism as I try to encourage and motivate parents wanting to pass Arabic on their kids on my blog at arabicseeds.com
I am a Hungarian mom, having an Egyptian husband and a 3-year-old son. Currently we live in Egypt but going to move to Germany in few months. I speak only Hungarian to my son, the nursery teachers speak only English to my son, the kids in the nursery and my husband and his family members speak Arabic to my son. He understands everything in Hungarian and he is primarily using Hungarian as his language (of course not yet well) even with kids or teachers in the nursery and even with my husband and his family.
Now the problem is that he speaks only Hungarian with everyone, I guess I need to add another language during our conversation so he will connect the currently spoken Hungarian language to English or Arabic. I wonder why is our minority language is the strongest between the 3 languages? How can I make sure he keeps using Hungarian but switches to another language when needed?
I use to read your emails and posts and its always great to check how am I doing with my son but it seems my case is just opposite to the usual cases and I would be really glad to read something related to this as well.
As for your list above I really love it and can confirm these are really useful. Since my son was born I was practicing these things by myself – probably that’s why our minority language became my son’s primal language 😀
Thanks for sharing these “small steps” to follow. Following the above-mentioned steps is a great help for us – parents, who are looking forward to a best practice so that our children can speak the minority language. Again, thank you for this one!
This is a great list! Wish I’d had it 8 years ago with my first. I felt so clueless! Remembering that each child is different has been key for me, but not so easy for the kids’ Chinese family (I’m American) who think that kids should progress at the same speed. My daughter is way beyond where her brother was, but they’re each doing well. It’s hard living in a place where they don’t have anyone to practice English with besides us. Skype is helpful for talking to family, but it’s the trip to the USA every few years that make a huge impact on the kids language.
These are such great ideas! It’s really helpful to have ideas for older children, as it seems so many articles focus on very young ones.
I´m loving the content on your website/blog.
I have a question. I have a 20 month old son who is starting to babble/speak. My wife and I speak Portuguese. I can also speak English fluently and wanted him to learn English as well. I’m afraid if I start to speak English with him, he will get confused and have problems learning one language or the other.
Can you please help?
if you feel comfortable in speaking English with your son, then please do so and I would recommend to start now. It is so much easier to start early than to introduce one language later. Start with using English in songs and rhymes, then in games and simple books. When he is used to you speaking English, increase the amount until you switch altogether.
Also read the following articles about confusion and monolingual toys.