How to use “monolingual toys” to motivate bilingual children

by | Mar 15, 2017 | How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Practical advice, Toddlers | 8 comments

How to use monolingual toys to motivate bilingual children


“How do I introduce another language for my toddler?”
“How can I motivate my little one to speak my language?”
“How to have fun when practicing the kids’ minority language?”

These are questions I often get in the queries sent to our team of Family Language Coaches. One of the recommendations I often give to parents of small children is to dedicate a puppet, teddy or some other toy to the language. In this post you will find some practical ideas on how to use “monolingual toys” when raising a bilingual child.

Choice of toy

First, you need to choose the right kind of toy. The first criteria is that your child should like it – otherwise you fall at the first hurdle. Secondly it should be a toy that invites a child to communicate. Children can of course conjure up discussions with anything, be it a toy house or a ball, but I would recommend choosing a teddy, toy animal or doll of any type, be it a superhero or a rag doll. My personal favourite is a hand puppet thanks to its versatility. With a hand puppet, you can easily show different emotions and move in a way that supports the understanding of what is spoken.

Create a backstory

To make the “monolingual toy” concept more real, create a backstory for the chosen toy. Give it a name which is specific to its language. Give it any other additional external features that tie it to the language and to the country the language is spoken in: clothing and other accessories (our bear hand puppet comes with a Moomin-character!) It would be great if you could get someone to send you the toy so that it arrives from its “home country” (maybe an idea for a gift that grandparents or other relatives could send?) Together with your child, create a story about where the toy was “born”, what it has been doing until now, why it has come to your home, what it likes and dislikes and so on.

Give the toy a distinct personality

It is beneficial to give the toy some personality traits that will help you have a varied communication. Obviously, it should like to talk. It should be inquisitive and ask a lot of questions about anything, even the most obvious things. “Is this my ear?” “What is your name?” “How old are you?” “Where is the door?” It should sometimes get things wrong, so your child can help it. It should be engaging. However, it may not always listen you, so that you have to repeat what you have to say.

Act as a translator when needed

Depending on how well your child knows the language he or she is learning, you may have to do some translating. (Yes, I know that this means you will be talking to yourself, but just go with me on this one.) This is your opportunity to introduce vocabulary you would like your child to learn or expand on.

Examples of a dialogues

If your child knows nothing or very little of the toy’s language

– Tell your child that you are going to ask for the puppet’s name
– Ask the puppet for its name in its language. Repeat the question a few times (the puppet may be “distracted”, so you must ask again)
– Once the puppet has said its name, make it ask your child for his or her name
– If your child does not understand the question, make the puppet ask for your own name and give an answer (this way you are acting as the role model for answering in the toy’s language)

You can repeat this with similar other discussions, introducing simple, important words like yes and no, mummy, daddy, play, eat, sleep etc.

If you want to expand on certain vocabulary (in this case colours)

– Point at different colours in a book or in the room, ask the puppet what colour it is.
– The puppet answers with the colour, then points to something else of the same colour and asks your child to name the colour.
– The puppet could also answer with the wrong answer if you are sure your child already knows it. Children usually find it funny when someone else gets something wrong and engage in a discussion.

Your imagination is the only thing setting the limits to these discussions!

The concept of “monolingual toys” will of course work best with small children, but they can be the perfect way of introducing a new language to your toddler, creating more engagement in your child’s minority language or just having more fun while expanding the vocabulary.

Never miss a post! Sign up to the Multilingual Parenting newsletter and I will send you a recap of the week’s posts every Sunday. Every second week you will receive a more extensive issue with links to research articles and interesting posts from other writers, as well as handy tips and ideas! Want to read more like this? My book Bringing up a Bilingual Child is available on Amazon and in well-stocked bookshops. Do you have a specific question? You can send it to our team of Family Language Coaches and we will reply in a Q&A (questions are answered in order of arrival). If you are interested in tailor-made family language coaching, please, contact me and I will send you a proposal.


  1. Nayla

    I’ve read this article with a huge smile in my face – beginning to end.! After reading the kitten story in your book, I’ve had the idea of perhaps bringing a doll to my 3 year old granddaughter but after reading this article, I realize I have to really work on the idea… My husband and I have the opportunity of visiting her every Wednesday and spend the whole day with her. We speak Spanish to her but the process has been a little bit slower than I expected; partly because my son (her dad) feels like she doesn’t understand him when we speak Spanish to her and he tends to switch to English (that’s what they speak at home). My son says he’d love to teach them Spanish but after reading your book I see what’s been happening and I’m pretty sure it can be corrected. I’m looking forward to working on a better plan, now that I’ve found these resources. Thanks so much

    • Rita

      Dear Nayla,
      Thank you so much for your lovely comment! I am so glad to hear how supportive you are, helping your granddaughter learn Spanish.
      Good luck!

  2. Emilie

    That’s a great idea! Thank you so much for sharing and for your work Rita!
    I am sharing it this week with Arabic-raising parents of our facebook page. I think it is even useful for teachers.
    – Emilie.

  3. Daphne

    Great idea! I have been searching on the internet to find a method to introduce English to my 2,5 year old. She is already Bilingual (Dutch and Spanish) – I speak Dutch to her and her father Spanish (we live in Spain). But I am also fluent in English, so I want her to learn that as well. My daughter speaks both Dutch and Spanish fluently already, so I was looking for a new challenge.
    Might it be an idea to start with an English hand puppet, and then move towards a “English Monday” (on Monday we speak English at home) once she starts to understand it?
    I have another girl who is only 6 weeks – and would like to start of with the English Monday immediately, so she will pick up the three languages from the start?

    • Rita

      Hi Daphne,
      Thank you for your feedback and for sharing your family’s language journey. Due to the high number of questions coming in, we answer all of them either during live Q&A sessions on Facebook or in scheduled posts on the site. I will comment on your question during today’s live Q&A which will take place at 4 pm UK time. You can see the video on the Multilingual Parenting Facebook page – if you miss it, you will be able to watch a recording!
      Kind regards

    • Dieter

      Hi Daphne,
      I find myself in literally the exact situation you described (replacing Spain/Spanish with Germany/German). I’d love to start introducing English now that she’s 2,5. One advantage that we have is that my wife and I both speak English, so I wouldn’t have to carry all that weight necessarily. And we would like a second child at some point, so also interested in how we could do it differently from the start, as you mention.
      Any chance you could briefly share what you ended up learning and doing here? I seem to get a lot of conflicting information online, so hearing from someone in this situation would be a great help. Thanks a lot in advance!

  4. Lindah

    So refreshing to find exactly what you looking for on the internet. Thank you for these ideas they quite informative. Also have a bilingual toddler that i was desperately wanting to teach a third language.

  5. Monique

    Thank you so much for sharing this! This is extremely helpful as I have been wondering how/when to introduce French to our bilingual toddler.


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