Growing up bilingual can be an enriching experience, both for the parent and the child. In pursuit of acquiring a second language, there are a number of challenges a learner will face. Even if you can’t achieve an ideal immersive environment, however, there are still a number of ways to introduce your young child to a bilingual upbringing. Having been raised with two languages myself, I can offer some insight into how exactly that works.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I became fluent in French without consistent interaction with the language or even living full time in France. The only real immersive French practice I had was spending two to three weeks out of the year in the town of Blaye, France. Even when I would return home, I rarely spoke French with my dad, who wanted to practice his English. Yet by age 7, I was having full-blown conversations with my French family in different social settings. I was fortunate to spend the limited time I had in France, but retaining the language for so long has been a more active process. Here are some ways you can help your child work on their target language without living in another country.
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4 Tips For Teaching Your Child Two Languages
1. Replicate immersion by converting L1 media into L2.
What To Use: Netflix, YouTube, games, etc.
Nowadays kids interact with multimedia much more than I did, but French TV kid shows and cartoons like Les Aventures de TinTin, Titeuf, and Asterix & Obelix helped me learn new words in context and retain ones that I already knew. These shows were written by Francophones, so it included a healthy number of expressions and sayings only said by natives. I was able to connect the words and phrases that I was hearing, to what I was watching. Slowly converting those mediums of entertainment into the target language is a great way to build some at home immersion.
2. Start with basic needs and wants.
What To Use: Phrases around needs like eating and drinking.
In a French household, I would learn vocabulary from pointing at things that I wanted and having my family members fill in the blanks when I didn’t know the word. Usually, it was something like a glass of orange juice or ice cream, and those were the earliest things I knew by heart. My grandma would ask Tu veux du jus d’orange ? And I’d respond with a head nod and Oui, du jus d’orange. Without specifically studying, I learned the correct gender article and the contraction of a vowel in French. This scenario played out for countless phrases over time and I absorbed them like a sponge.
Kids can benefit from learning the language in the context of requests like hunger, hobbies and the bathroom. These provide a built-in natural motivation to acquire more of the language that way.
3. Use physical gestures to build vocab.
What To Use: Basic questions like “Are you hungry?”
Even something as simple as responding to questions with physical gestures helped me build comprehension. I’ll never forget how I learned the word for hungry in French, one day my uncle asked me Tu as faim ? After registering my look of confusion, my uncle would curl his fingers and gesture to his mouth. All of a sudden, I understood what he meant, and I let out an expressive Oui, oui ! Body language connects words and phrases we don’t know with our natural comprehension.
- My grandmother would turn her hand into a phone and ask Tu veux apeler ta maman ? and I knew it meant I should call my mom back home.
- She would close her hands together against her head and ask Tu veux faire une sieste ? and I knew it was nap time
4. Introduce reading with visual aids like comic books or picture books.
Fun fact: I didn’t learn how to fully read and write in French until I was 14, and I started out teaching myself through graphic novels and comic books like Tin-Tin and Lukey-Luke. Just like real life body language, the images provided the context I needed to understand what I already knew orally. I was naturally drawn to comic books as a kid, so the learning went hand-in-hand easily. Visual aids provide the bridges between what we read/hear with understanding.
There are certainly advantages to teaching grammar concepts through reading and writing to children, but my experience shows that you don’t have to add that type of learning so early on. I believe learning French orally first gave me the confidence to speak, which is one of the greatest challenges with tackling another language. Especially if your child is naturally shy or reserved (like I was), speaking will build their confidence.
Why You Should Teach Your Child Two Languages
Learning two languages at an early age was a gift I learned to appreciate as I got older. It helped me connect with people I otherwise would not be able to and add a layer of identity. Enriching your child with a lifelong skill can enable them to be better communicators and connectors with the world around them.
It’s not an easy task, but making sure they feel supported and, most of all, encouraged while learning will impart a wonderful memory. They don’t need to speak with perfect grammar or pronunciation, let them make their mistakes! Please remember, they’re kids. They need to have some fun during this process. It might even motivate them to learn more languages on their own.
I’d like to dedicate this article to my grandparents and the Massey-Garido-Cacheur family.