Credit: Little Bilingues
Meet this week’s guest writer:
Hello, my name is Judith, I am a 27-year-old expatriate living in London. After graduating from a MSc in management, I worked in the children’s books industry as a marketing and sales force assistant. I became increasingly frustrated with the jobs because I couldn’t take part in the editorial and creative process of publishing. For that reason, I started writing and/or illustrating children’s books. I created my own publishing company and also founded Little Bilingues, a website promoting French-English bilingualism for children aged 2 to 7.
Whether they are monolingual or bilingual, whether they live in their home country or abroad, many parents want their children to learn a second language from a very young age. Research has indeed established that the earlier the better. Parents often don’t know where to start or how to help their children develop their language skills.
Here are my practical tips to improve your child’s language skills and make your bilingual journey a bit smoother… Keep in mind that some tips are best suited for children who already know how to write and read in their second language while others are adapted to toddlers or children who have just been introduced to their second language.
1. Find a strategy and be consistent. You need to set a (realistic) goal regarding the bilingualism of your child. Do you want him to speak both languages equally and fluently? Or do you want him just to have good basis in the second language? Then, choose a strategy (One Parent One Language, Minority language at home…) and a schedule/plan (school options, number of trips to countries where the minority language is spoken…) and stick to them. There is no ideal method, choose the one that best suits your family structure, the available means and the degree of bilingualism you would like your child to reach. You may have to make some adjustments over time but try not to make big changes as that would probably confuse your child.
2. Make it fun. Sitting in front of a list of words or looking at traditional flashcards can be a total turn-off for some children, especially if they are very young. If it’s not fun at all, they are likely to resist it and language learning will become a chore or just another homework. Try to introduce bilingualism through play, interacting with your child in his minority language when he plays his favourite games. Focus on creative activities such as arts, crafts or cooking recipes… If your child is 4 or older, make him discover the culture, traditions and even geography of the countries where the languages are spoken. And try to have fun too!
3. Adapt to your child’s natural interests. This tip is a bit similar to the previous one: try to find activities that are attractive to your child and add a bilingual twist to them. For example, if your daughter loves horses, buy her a book about her passion in the minority language or register her on a course in a pony-club…
4. Make it useful. Kids don’t think about future payoffs when it comes to learning a second language, they want immediate usage. So try to be as practical as you can be: use words and expressions that your child will be able to use and repeat on a daily basis. He will be so proud to say what he wants to wear or do today after learning the words from you, a book or a game! Planning a trip to a country where the minority language is spoken is also a great way to make your kid understand that this language is really useful.
5. Talk and train his little ears. Even if your child is very young, make sure he hears both languages on a daily basis. Describe what you’re doing, do not hesitate to repeat the same sentences (children learn best with repetition) in order to immerse him in the language and to get him used to its sounds, rhythm and melody.
6. Encourage interactions. Your child won’t learn a second language by sitting on his own in front of the TV. Interaction is a key. Try to make your child speak and answer to you, ask him questions, engage him in discussions. Correct him only when you think it is really important (do not correct systematically as you may quickly discourage him) and don’t make a big deal out of it. A great way to encourage interactions are playdates with other bilingual children who are “like” your child. If your child knows how to write, you can look for a pen pal, ask your friends and family!
7. Read in both languages so that no language lags behind. Reading is primordial. Depending on the age of your child, read aloud to him, or let him read, or read at two voices. That will help boost your child’s vocabulary, encourage biliteracy and will also strengthen the bond between you and him. Build a small library in your home with books in both languages and let your child choose himself (just make sure he doesn’t always choose the same bedtime story over and over again!).
8. Be flexible. Be prepared to make some adjustments depending on your child’s progress and reactions to life as a bilingual child. Do not see these adjustments as failures. Each child is different and has his favourite ways to learn. Some children like challenges, others don’t and prefer to learn in a calm and reassuring environment. Some children love creative activities while others prefer reading peacefully. Your child will probably like some methods and reject others. Try to offer him a wide range of activities but give the priority to what he seems to enjoy the most.
9. Praise. Give your child positive feedback, value his progress by giving him compliments on what he is able to say and remember in both languages.
10. Be serious but not rigid. You have set rules. Good, you have to. But whatever you do, do not force bilingualism as it is the perfect recipe for disaster. Rules shouldn’t take the fun out of language learning. Find a balance and learn to recognise your child’s absolute limit.
Bonus. Be patient and find support. Education is challenging and a bilingual education even more. It won’t happen overnight. Do not get annoyed when your child makes mistakes or mixes languages in the same sentence. Remember that mistakes are part of the progress. And don’t worry, your child will eventually sort languages out and separate them if he tends to mix them. You may sometimes think about giving up, I think it’s perfectly normal. Any worry or question? Find a community of parents of multilingual children to share your issues, speak to someone you trust and don’t listen to the naysayers: bilingualism is a beautiful gift you’re offering your child and it won’t in anyway slow his development!
On my website and blog you will find information and advice about language learning. You will also find a range of bilingual materials (stories, activity sheets, card games…) available for download for free and, very soon, picture books that you will be able to purchase in print. All my materials are in accordance with the tips and principles I have just shared with you. Feel free to contact me via social media if you have any questions regarding bilingualism and early language learning, I’m always happy to help!
How many languages do you speak at home? Is language learning an important skill you want your child to have? Why?