Millie Slavidou is a British writer and translator, and the mother of a bilingual child, living and working in Greece. She writes about etymology on Jump! Mag and has published fiction for kids with Jump! Books. She writes the books she would like to have read as a child.
There are many different ways that you can support your child’s bilingualism. It all starts with speech, the way we all learn our mother tongues. Speak in that language as much as possible, and encourage your child to speak it too. If there are no other native speakers around you, try to find media that you can use, such as films, age-appropriate television programmes, music and radio. This may be easier for some languages than others, of course. You can ask people who are still in the country where the language is spoken to send you material where that is possible.
Put on songs with catchy lyrics in the target language, to get them humming along. It helps them to think in that language.
The next means of support for bilingualism is literature. Initially, a child will need to be read to, and I advise that you continue to do so for as long as possible, even after they have learnt to read. You can make it a fun part of your evening routine before bedtime. There will come a point, of course, when the child no longer wishes to be read to, but make the most of it while you can! With older children, you can draw their attention to an article or a passage in a book that is likely to interest them, and this can be a natural pretext to reading it out loud.
Aside from this, encourage your child to read in the minority language. Find books on subjects they are interested in, stories they are likely to enjoy, and so on, but also make use of the internet – for example, my children like to read science articles aimed at their age group, and so I search for appropriate material for them online.
Reading material needs to be readily available for them – it’s no good telling them vaguely to look for something in the right language. Be proactive and have it in front of them. Have books in plain sight, leave magazines on tables and leave a window open on your laptop with an interesting web article on. I also print things and put them up on the walls in their bedrooms, so that they are curious to see what it is and read it. You can change these texts at unexpected intervals to keep them on their toes.
Write short notes and put them up on the fridge or their bedroom doors and encourage them to write things down too. These things don’t have to be serious, and you can have a lot of fun together making silly notes or giving silly instructions to each other.
From here, it almost seems a natural progression to start writing silly rhymes, and the next step is fun poems and songs. Take a tune you are all familiar with and write down your own lyrics to it in the minority language.
Another fun activity, especially if you have artistic children, could be to draw comics and get them to write the captions or speech bubbles in the minority language, perhaps even styled as a gift to a loved relative who speaks the minority language. If they don’t enjoy drawing, you can find cartoon pictures and comics online and print them out for them to write on.
One activity that I enjoy a lot with my own children is story writing. It can be about anything. Sometimes, I write down a prompt for them and they write whatever they can. Length is not important – we are not expecting to be graded on this work! Once, I read a story to my children, and they thought it wasn’t very good. I asked how we could make it better. One child sat down to write his own story, the other added sentences and odd words to the book.
Another approach is to keep a scrap book, with little explanatory paragraphs and captions in the minority language. I know a family that did this and filled it with accounts of their lives, photos of themselves and cuttings from magazines, leaflets from places they had been to with little translations, and so on, as a Christmas present for the grandmother who lived in the country of the minority language, and who was unfamiliar with modern technology.
There is also a very simple thing you can do. Give them a notepad and pen and tell them to help you prepare the shopping list. Even simple sentences like “Have we got any tomatoes left?” or “Do we need to buy olive oil?” can be an opportunity to use the minority language, with the added bonus that they then write the list in that language.
Living in the era of the internet, we all know that children are going to want to use it. The trick is to use it to your advantage in promoting their use of the minority language. YouTube is a great resource, full of videos that are a potential source of language for you. Look for clips that would be appropriate, search for things in their areas of interest, but don’t be too restrictive. They might find something different interesting too from time to time.
A good idea is to join a forum or a group on a site like Facebook dedicated to bilingualism, or aimed at parents of children in the country where your minority language is spoken. You can ask in the first place about issues specifically related to bilingualism, and in the second about suggestions for videos and suitable things for your child to watch.
You might even like to encourage your child to set up their own YouTube channel as a means to use the minority language! And if they speak their majority language on it too, well, they are bilingual. You could even encourage them to show off their linguistic prowess and make bilingual videos, with absolutely everything in both languages on their own channel.
This will seem obvious, of course. If you have managed to get your bilingual children all the way up to their teen years still speaking the minority language, then you may have already had a number of holidays in the country where it is spoken. But is it perhaps time to let them go it alone? If this is possible for you, how about sending your child to spend the summer with grandparents or other relatives, in a place where there is no other choice but to use the minority language.
If you can’t visit the place yourself, or send your child there, then can you bring it to you instead? Are there relatives or friends there who you can ask to come and stay with you – especially any younger family members who might be a similar age to your child. If an adult visitor comes, ask them to engage your children in conversation, to ask about their school, their hobby, their interests and so on. If a younger person comes, you can encourage your child to show things to the visitor, and perhaps ask a few leading questions yourself to get the conversation going.
As we have already said, there is no getting away from the information age – and we don’t want to. It can be incredibly useful, and you should take advantage of it as much as possible to support bilingualism in your family. We have already considered Youtube and Facebook. But there is much more out there. You can make use of Instagram and Tumblr in the right languages too, perhaps even searching for things yourself there at first, to get the ball rolling.
It almost goes without saying that Skype and Facetime or other video call services should be part of your regular routine, connecting you to communities of speakers, perhaps relatives or friends. This is much better than simply watching a video, as that is a passive activity, whereas a video call provides real opportunity for interaction, to get them using the minority language themselves.
With all these larger sites and big names, it is easy to forget the smaller ones. But there is a lot more out there. You could search for a forum that caters to your children’s interests or see if there are online children’s clubs or teen clubs of any kind in the minority language. You may feel that we are past the age of the humble pen pal – well how about an email-pal instead? You could ask family and friends to help you set it up if they know of a child who would be interested.
Finally, a passive language environment can be created if you search for online radio stations in the minority language. You can leave it playing in the background while you go about the house doing other things. Your children will hear it and absorb it without even noticing.
As I have already said; be proactive. Provide opportunities, find information, make everything in the minority language readily available. The way to acquire a language is by using it, so give them as much opportunity as possible to do so.