This is the time of year when we are all encouraged to make resolutions to improve different aspects of our lives. As parents of bilingual kids we are no exception to the expectation of making promises to change our behaviour to ensure that our children grow up to be bilingual. However, apparently only 8% of all resolutions are kept! I would certainly want you to have better odds than that, so what to do instead?
Define your goals for your children’s language skills
What is your expectation about how well your bilingual kids should be able to speak the language? There is a big difference in whether you would want them to be able to communicate in everyday situations or whether your goal is for them to be able to read and write and also express themselves in more academic situations. These two fluency levels have been defined by Jim Cummins as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills – BICS and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency – CALP
If you are going for the latter, then you will need to invest considerably more time or alternatively arrange some formal tuition for your child’s minority language. For basic communication skills, you should make sure your child gets enough exposure to the language – either from you or other sources.
You may also decide that it is enough for your child to be able to understand a language (receptive bilingualism) so not to feel left out in social situations where the language is spoken. This is a perfectly valid goal, if this is what you think is doable. Your children will still get a foundation in the language which can be worked on later in life.
Choose the family language strategy that works for you
There are several different ways for how to pass on family languages – read my previous posts on each one of them and (if you haven’t already done so) select the one which feels right for you.
Be realistic about what you can and cannot do
There is no point in making a resolution to read for X number of hours with your child if your circumstances do not allow for this. Do you have a relative who could read a book with your child over Skype? Could they make a recording of a book that your child could listen to while following the text or pictures in the book?
Instead of big resolutions, make small adjustments to your daily routines which do not require significant changes. If you feel that your child needs more exposure to your language, start by giving a “running commentary” on what you are doing, be it when you are out and about, in the shop, cooking, working in the garden or playing a game. The more topics you can bring in the better. No need to change what you do, just talk more while you do it with your child.
If what you have the time and energy for does not tally up with what level of fluency you would like your children to achieve, then ask for ideas and look for resources that can help you. You are not alone, and by speaking with other parents in the same situation, you can get a lot of help and advice. However, remember to listen to others’ opinions with a what-works-for-us filter – every family is different. Should you want tailored family language coaching, please do get in touch.
What has worked in the past?
When have you noticed that your child has made good progress with their language skills? Can you do more of this? Can you arrange more one-to-one time with other speakers of the language? Would it be possible to stay somewhere where the locals speak the language? Can you find more of the type of books or comics that your child loves?
Building on what has been successful in the past is a lot easier than trying to create new routines – concentrate on an activity that you know your children will love, then incorporate the language into it. Trying to speak a language for the sake of it is rarely successful – the communication should be natural and it should “make sense” for your child.
Stick with it
Persistence and patience are the two most important virtues of parents raising bilingual children. Even when it feels that you are not making progress and are not sure if what you are doing is right, stick with it. I know from many other families as well as my own experience that not giving up is crucial – your kids WILL thank you in the end!