Adding Another Language to Your Happy Home
Published: November 3, 2017
by Sarah Dodson-Knight
Let’s assume that as a reader of this blog, you don’t need convincing that having a second (or third, or fourth…) language in your pocket is a good thing. But perhaps you’re wondering how to bring that new language into your home life, especially if you’re not a native speaker, or especially if your children are old enough to notice that all of a sudden the grown-ups are saying strange and incomprehensible things?!
Well, obviously, you can send them to summer camp at Concordia Language Villages—or even go as a family for a week or two!—but for the other 50 weeks a year, here are my suggestions (as a non-native speaker of French in Colorado) of how to support a second language at home. I’ve been doing so for nearly ten years, despite the fact that my husband is, as he ruefully refers to himself, “hopelessly monolingual.” (I keep telling him that non, after 12 years of marriage to a French teacher, two trips to France, and two weeks of immersion at Lac du Bois, he’s a “recovering monolingual.”)
Establish a time and/or space for the target language, such as one dinner a week, or every breakfast, or during car rides, or a certain room, or when sitting on a certain piece of furniture (or even a blanket) that represents a country where the language is spoken. Gradually, your family members will come to associate that situation with that language.
With babies, brush up your vocabulary before you start. (I studied abroad and have a masters degree in French, but never once in my teens or twenties needed to convey ideas such as “uh-oh, look who had a diaper blowout all over his onesie in the bouncy chair!”). Browsing parenting blogs, websites, and Facebook groups in French helped me pick up the lingo I needed to talk to (and about) my baby.
With younger kids, enlist the help of a furry friend—a new stuffed animal that lives in a country where the target language is spoken, a puppet, even a pet! Tell the kiddos that their new buddy doesn’t understand English, so if they want to play with Babar or Madeline or le hamster, they’ll have to do it in, say, French. You can help the animal or puppet sing, read, tell stories, play games, build, and otherwise engage your child in the desired language.
With older children who have been raised monolingual so far, you’ll need to get their buy-in. Pique their curiosity about the countries where the language is spoken with trips to museums, restaurants, cultural events, concerts, fairs, and festivals. Invite people from those countries to dinner at your home. Let your kids watch cartoons, YouTube clips, and movies that are set in those countries and/or use use the language. Make books in English about those countries, their crafts, their foods, magically appear on their bedside tables. Tie it into what they’re learning in school or at music lessons or on sports teams or in Scouts. At the same time, have them help you generate a list of reasons why it’s marvelous to speak more than one language; also have them help figure out which language, and when, and how. The more that the children are involved in the decisions and justification of bringing another language into the family, the more likely it is to stick.
Of course, children of all ages benefit from having lots and lots of books around; it’s particularly wonderful when some of them are in the desired language! I have had luck finding used children’s books and magazines in French at garage sales, thrift shops, library fundraisers, and online (particularly when ordering sets of books from eBay Canada, which generally means cheaper shipping than bringing them in from France). And what my children like best are the books and stories through apps like J’aime Lire on my tablet (some free, most less than $5 each, and many with narration that we can listen to as we read along.). However, any book in any language can serve as a springboard—the parents can present the book any way they like, such as asking questions about the pictures, making up their own stories, or translating on the fly. My kids (and I) have even enjoyed writing and illustrating their own books in French!
And, finally, I’m not ashamed to admit that I bribe my children. I mentioned that they love my tablet—if they want screen time, it has to be in French first! So they watch Brainpop videos, play spelling and math or not-necessarily-educational-but-still-in-French games, listen to stories, sing along with comptines, watch video clips of French children or Disney heroines singing, and so forth. I also offer them one-on-one time with maman to cook together, take walks, drink chocolate chaud, do crafts, or watch movies if we make an effort to do so without using English. Also, they can collect stickers on a chart on the réfrigérateur for accomplishing various tasks in French. It is amazing what a five-year-old will do for a sticker of a cute animal! When the chart is full, they receive a prize; my kiddos have now amassed quite a collection of French-themed puzzles, games, coloring books, and toys.
Ultimately, though, you will probably struggle to introduce another language into your home life if you are doing so in a vacuum—it is essential that your children understand that many other people also speak that other language and that knowing the language will open doors for them. Getting to know people—especially other children—who use the target language will make a huge impact on your kids, especially once they are in school with monolingual anglophone peers. Seek out playgroups, playdates, storytimes, classes, and camps in the target language (or create your own opportunities through a Meetup group if none exist in your area). Hire babysitters that speak the desired language, use social networking to meet friends of friends of friends from countries where the language is spoken (try nextdoor.com or Facebook groups for your city), reconnect with friends and relatives abroad with online video calls.
Most of all, have fun sharing your chosen language with your children!
Sarah Dodson-Knight, an award-winning teacher, lives in Lafayette, Colorado with her two trilingual children and her gradually-less-monolingual husband. She tutors French, runs a reading enrichment program at a public library, and attempts to maintain her blog, Bringing up Baby Bilingual. She attended Lac du Bois Bemidji as a credit villager in 1991, spent a week at Lac du Bois Hackensack with her family in 2016, and then returned to direct the maternelle (the program for campers ages 0-6) in 2017.