Today, having helped my younger daughter pack for her trip to the other side of the world, I was again reminded of how travelling has been important, in so many ways, for her and her sister. Apart from the obvious of visiting new and revisiting familiar places, travelling has for them played a crucial role when it comes to learning to master their languages and getting to know the cultures that are part of their identity. On the other hand, their language skills have made it easy for them to embark on these journeys.
I have lost count how many times they have stayed with their grandparents and other relatives in the vibrant region of Punjab, India. My beautiful home village of Dagsmark in Finland is our destination for a couple of weeks every summer. We now live in England, and each one of us has separately spent some time in Germany – coming to think of it, we did actually spend a long weekend together in Berlin. We have been very lucky to be able to do this.
How to make the most of travelling for your bilingual child, be it for real or in the virtual world?
When I have asked parents what has been the single most important event that has helped their bilingual children on their language journey, more often than not the answer has been “a trip back home”. Especially if you are the only person who speaks a language with your child, it is so important for your kid to hear more people speak it. It can be a real eye-opener (and tongue-unlocker!) for your child to experience that the language, which may well be very much in the minority where you live, can be the main language used in the streets, on TV, in shops, schools, by kids like them, by everyone everywhere in the community. Many parents have told me how their child, who may have been reluctant to speak a language before, after a while started not only to speak it, but also to use words and phrases their parents did not even know were part of their kid’s vocabulary.
During your travels, try to arrange activities for your children where they can spend time together with other kids of their age. This can be playgroups, camps, sports activities or even a few days at a local school. The more your child gets used to speaking your language in different situations, the more confidence he or she will gain in using it after you return home. Also, try to find children who you can continue to stay in touch with once you are back home – this way you create a continuum for the habit of speaking your language.
Language and culture go hand in hand – one of the comments I always find myself making when it comes to getting a deeper understanding of a language. It also goes the other way: knowing a language gives you the tool to take in the full richness of a culture! There is no better way of getting a feel for the culture than to be in the middle of it and to take part in the everyday life as well as traditions and celebrations. If you can offer your children the opportunity to experience this, please do – they will benefit from it on so many levels!
Travelling the world does not come cheap, so it is not a given that everyone can do it, and most of us cannot travel as much as we would like to. There might also be other reasons preventing visits to the area your language is spoken in. Thankfully, modern technology can come to the rescue and offer similar experiences to what you would gain during a real life trip. Staying in touch with loved ones across the world is today easier than ever before with free applications such as Skype, Google Hangouts or Facetime. Find ways of making these sessions engaging for your children and when they are big enough, leave the room to allow them to practise their language skills without you being there help them out.
You can use the internet to learn about traditions, festivities, food, films, art, hobbies together – you name it, there will most likely be a YouTube video about it! You can listen to music, plays, factual broadcasts and kids programs. Perhaps there is a TV channel you can subscribe to – and you will certainly find movies to watch. Most countries also have on-line radio stations, which you can tune into and keep in touch with the culture.
… and don’t forget books! Make sure to introduce your children to books that tell the story of their languages’ cultures, countries and people.
Remember, independent of how, where and with whom you make your journey, always be a traveller, not just a tourist – as per G.K. Chesterton:
“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”