Being creative is a bit of a must when bringing up a bilingual child. Of course, creativity is always called for when raising children, independent of how many languages are involved in the process. Keeping multiple languages going in a family brings however with it challenges which do not occur in a monolingual household.
Cajoling to speak
The challenge of getting children to speak the minority language is a hot topic in many multilingual families, and numerous are the ways of doing it! You may have already heard about Pricken, the Swedish-speaking kitten, who came to my rescue when I was desperately trying to switch from Finnish to Swerdish with my eldest daughter. I believe in positive motivation and so do many other parents who create sticker charts or other reward systems to make their little ones put in that little bit of more effort. We find out what is THE thing that makes our kid go “Yes, I want to do that!” and then use this as a motivation (within reason of course, may I hasten to add). Here are some of the ways we get creative – because we have to.
Finding the balance between consistency and flowing communication
For a child to pick up and want to speak the minority language in a family, it does require a certain amount of consistency in the language use of the parent who speaks the minority one. However, you do not want being consistent dampen your children’s willingness to communicate and speak to you about what is happening in their lives. What do we do? We try to find ways to make speaking our language fun for our kids. We create situations where the minority language is the preferred choice for our children. We continue speaking the minority language even on those days when we feel that we are losing the battle (you are not, keep at it!)
If you are the only person speaking the minority language to your little one, you are also the supplier of the words for his or her vocabulary. We tend to use the same words over and over in our daily lives – an average English-speaker can get along with only 100 different words in a day, out of a vocabulary of about 20 000 and rarely uses more than the 3000 most common ones. We do want our kids to learn as many words as possible in the target language, so we change our daily routines a bit, visit new places and make up stories just to get the right words included.
Finding other speakers
The best way for a child to become an active fluent speaker of a language is to interact as much as possible in the language. It is beneficial to have several people to talk to – so what do we do as parents? We go to great lengths to find play-dates, possible friends and Skype-chat partners four our budding bilinguals. Grandparents are the first in line for on-line chats followed by cousins, aunts, uncles and other relatives. We even try to think of topics to talk about in advance to keep the discussion going during the calls.
Making the most of visits
Our holidays are mostly spent in the “home” country – not much creativity when it comes to trips! But when we are there, not only do we try to make sure our kids spend as much time immersed in the language with native speakers, we also scour the bookshops and toy stores for games to help our children learn the language. We can cram a lot into a week-long visit! We buy magazines and comics and read out loud the product descriptions on cereal packets (we do this back home too, when we find an item with a description in the right language!)
How do you get creative in your everyday life to support your bilingual child?