The 5 questions: How do you inspire your children to learn a 2nd language?
Profile: Sarah with her son Griffin (4 ½) and daughter Gwyneth (14 months)
Location: Lafayette, Colorado, USA
Native language of Sarah and the children: English
Language learned: French
1. What is your favorite activity that helps your son and daughter learn a 2nd language?
My favorite activity? Only one??? Okay, okay, if you insist! I’ll have to say “reading.”
The part of me that used to be a full-time French teacher knows that the best way to familiarize students with new vocabulary is to read with them, because books--even children’s picture books--offer many words that most people don’t encounter in their everyday lives. Meeting these words and ideas from reading and storytelling means that they are presented in a meaningful context (the plot and characters) with other clues (such as illustrations and tone of voice). Thus, reading allows us to learn new words (in any language) without having to study vocabulary lists of definitions and translations. It’s more natural--and of course much more fun.
When I read to my children, I often follow the text word-for-word (especially at bedtime when I’m soooo sleepy)--but not always. Sometimes I simply describe the illustrations to baby Gwyneth (“Voici un papillon orange et noir qui vole au-dessus d’un champ de tournesols jaunes”--here’s an orange and black butterfly soaring over a field of yellow sunflowers) or ask my preschooler, Griffin, open-ended questions about them (“Montre-moi un insecte sur la photo. Tu connais d’autres petites bêtes? Lequel est ton préferé?”--Show me an insect in the picture. Can you name some other bugs? Which one is your favorite?)
Then we can continue the discussion, using the picture as a springboard to singing songs or reciting rhymes about bugs in French, looking for other depictions of bugs around his room, playing with a stuffed butterfly, retelling the story. We can spend half an hour on a picture book without ever finishing it!
Moreover, the part of me that now works at a library recognizes the power of books to introduce ideas, open minds, and transform lives (in any language).
And finally, the parent in me knows that if my children see me interacting with books and getting excited about them, then I’m modeling a very valuable behavior--they will grow up assuming that books are cool and that people read them for fun.
2. What is a helpful tool or technology you use?
I’d have to say the iPad. While we managed to parent a would-be bilingual child just fine for 3.5 years without a tablet computer, the iPad was a lifesaver when Gwyneth was born. Griffin loved playing on it, which meant that he resented less the time his maman was spending with the new baby instead of with him.
The iPad also gives Griffin a greater sense of autonomy and of ownership in his French language learning. For example, one of his favorite French apps involves dragging and dropping letters to spell out words. While I never would have pushed him to learn spelling in his second language at age four, he loves being able to figure it on his own and see the celebratory fireworks after successfully completing a word. He also really appreciates opening the YouTube app and watching the playlists of songs, movie and cartoon clips, and footage of children speaking French--he gets to choose which ones he wants to see when.
As for me, as a non-native speaker, I love finding apps in French for native-speaking children--songs, rhymes, video clips, animated storybooks, games, along with the ability to watch movies (via streaming Netflix) listen to the radio, and read websites in French no matter how often I move from room to room chasing the children. It’s so easy, so portable.
And if I had friends or family in a French-speaking country whose children were around Griffin’s age, I would totally set up regular times to Skype with them--it’s so easy to do with the tablet computer!
3. What is your #1 challenge? What helps in overcoming this challenge?
Being a non-native speaker of the only language I ever speak to my children is still a challenge after 4.5 years! My lifesavers have been the following:
• Reading books and websites in French about parenting (so I could learn the lingo that I had never needed as a student or teacher, like “the baby just had a diaper blow-out all over his onesie in the bouncy chair”)
• Joining a French playgroup that meets one morning a week
• Founding a storytime in French at the local public library
• Accepting that my own French is not quite fluent but that it doesn’t matter--I’d rather have children who speak French with an American accent and some grammar and vocab mistakes than children who only speak English. If I want speaking French to feel natural with my family, I can’t obsess about it.
4. Any tip or advice you have for other parents?
Teaching your children a language other than the one(s) spoken where you live is worth the effort, but you have to make it work for your family:
• With your partner, make an explicit decision as parents how to go about it--who will speak which language(s) in which context(s)? For example, if you’re consistent as to where and when and how you use the second language, you don’t necessarily have to speak it exclusively with your children.
• Help your children understand why it’s important to know another language (rather than imposing it).
• Make learning the second language fun with games, songs, puppets, movies, playgroups, storytime, travel, and more.
5. What drives you to continue?
I want my children to recognize that they are surrounded by fascinating people from all over the world, to want to travel to these places, and to be able to communicate with more than they would be able to as monolinguals.
I hope that they will be curious about how languages work and that the skills they develop learning languages will also transfer to studying other subjects such as math and music as they grow up.
Finally, and probably most practically, being bilingual should help them in the job market as adults.
You can read more of what Sarah does to inspire her children to learn French on her great blog Bringing Up Baby Bilingual.