Passing on language to your children sounds like it should be something easy to do- after all, we all speak one/ two/ multiple languages- we just need to speak them in front of our kids and let osmosis do the rest! Oh, if only it were that simple. Maybe when there is just one language for the children to absorb this relaxed approach is fine, but when we want our children to be multilingual we need to put a bit more effort into it.
30 is the magic number according to researchers: the percentage of hours each week children need exposure to the minority language in order for it to stand a chance of being native (as I wrote in my previous post: Exposure; how much is enough?). No matter how arbitrary that number is, it’s certainly a good idea to maximise exposure, and make every minute count.
How? Well, there are a lot of ways in which parents can build contact with language, some which take more preparation and maybe money, some which are instant ways to fill 5 minutes. Here are my pick of some tried and tested ones:
Join a playgroup. If you can find a playgroup in your local area which is exclusively in the minority language, waste no time! Join the group, and allow your children to make friends with other children who speak the minority language too. After an initial slow period, there will come a time that they will realise the need for the language, and love putting it to use.
Encourage ‘being helpful’. We all love to feel helpful, especially when we’re praised for it. (Or at least I do- I’m thrilled every time I get a message from someone telling me this blog is helpful to them! And those comments definitely give my efforts a boost!) , and children more than others. Being told they have helped someone makes them want to do more, and they get a happy feeling which (hopefully) encourages them further. So we parents need to instill this feeling of wanting to help others through the minority language, leading by example.
Immersion is one of the best ways to boost a minority language. During your visits “back home”, make sure that your children get to spend as much time as possible with monolingual speakers. If you can, let your children visit on their own, maybe travelling with other adults. I used to work on a Summer school in the UK- children from all over the world coming to spend 3 weeks learning and playing and interacting in English. It really worked.
Learn your children’s favourite things and build their language through those. Does your child love to sing or play tennis? Enroll him in a choir or tennis club, where the classes are given in the key language, and where he needs to use the language in little bursts. The vocabulary will be very specific and repeated often, so it will become easy for him to pick up. Added to that he will make friends at the club, and will go on to learn through them in a relaxed and happy environemnt.
Increase the amount of time reading books and decrease the time your children get one-way exposure in the form or children’s programmes, cartoons, movies and computer games. I am not saying that these are no good for supporting a minority language, but if you want to intensify the minority language exposure, then reading and discussing the story’s characters and plot is so much more effective.
Parrot- speak! When you want a younger child to try speaking more in the minority language, tell them to be a parrot and repeat everything you say, just as you say it. Depending on the child, you might say only short, simple words or you could try words that are a bit longer and even short (silly) sentences- in a normal voice or a funny ‘parrot’ voice. Then offer to switch and be the parrot yourself—this will encourage active language use even more.
Play I-spy in the target language. For younger children it doesn’t have to be “something beginning with [letter]”. With my 3-year old we play with colours, for example, and the repetition of a simple phrase will help to keep the words in the child’s brain.
Music. If your child enjoys listening to music, encourage it in the target language. I can still remember songs from my childhood learnt in French class at school. I now live in Austria, and speak so little German, but I have learnt some songs with my children, and I am able to remember them well. And music is fun… children generally enjoy belting out a tune in the car, in the supermarket- whenever they’re happy. It’s a nice background activity to have on while they colour or do puzzles.
Talk, talk, and then talk some more. There is a correlation between the volume of (quality) speech spoken by parents to their children in the earliest years and the child’s language ability at a later age. And talking is free. While you don’t need to fill every waking minute with words (indeed babies need ‘down- time’ too), there are so many situations where you can be speaking and informing. I see children in the playground sliding and swinging and making sandcastles while the parent gazes into the phone screen. This is the ideal time to build vocabulary- words about what they’re doing/ what they can see/ how they’re behaving/ what you’re going to do later. Again- a constant stream isn’t necessary, but don’t waste these opportunities!
Above all, keep it fun. Nothing puts a child off learning like realising they are learning. Games, competitions, playtime- all these can be a language pool. And even if the magic 30 isn’t reached, never give up. A little goes a long way, and your children can become bilingual with less exposure. It’s a challenge- but one totally worth taking.