Do your children understand the language you use with them but rarely speak it back to you? It can seem like a never ending task to help them actively use the minority language. Yet speaking in the minority language is like any other skill-it requires lots of practice to do it well. And parents can definitely help provide that necessary practice! Here are the top tips I’ve learned as a bilingual educator and a bilingual mom for encouraging kids to actively speak the minority language.
1. Consistency is key
Make a plan for consistent language input for your kids. Perhaps one parent will only speak the minority language to the child, or you’ll plan a schedule for when you’ll all speak it. Find resources to help make consistency easy-books, music, activities all in Spanish. Daily routines in the language are so helpful in decreasing push-back, add them in with small steps. By the way, this tip was extremely important to me as a dual language teacher. Staying in our target language set the tone and classroom rule for our Spanish learning.
2. Use language strategies
A few of my favorites strategies from teaching that I’ve adopted at home with my own kids. Read more here about expert recommendations for encouraging young children to talk-they apply in one language or two!
Offer choices “¿Leche o agua?” Milk or water? “¿Prefieres dibujar o escribir primero?” Would you prefer to draw or write first?
Give language frames “Di, a mí me gustaría ___.” Say, I would like to ___. “Podrías decir yo quiero pizza por favor.” You could say I want pizza please. The more they practice using simple phrases and key vocabulary with your support, the easier it will get for them to respond independently.
Recast in target language When your child says in English, “Look, Mom, a rainbow!” You respond in the target language: “Ay, que bonito. Yo veo el arco iris también. ¿Puedes decir arco iris en español?” Oh, how pretty. I see the rainbow, too. Can you say rainbow in Spanish? Sometimes they don’t have the vocabulary they need to say it in Spanish. However, if I know that they do, I encourage them… “Es un día español. Me encanta oír tu español. Cómo puedes decirlo en español?” It’s a Spanish day. I love to hear your Spanish. How can you say it in Spanish?
Expand on what your child says. Talk, talk, talk with your child… narrate what’s happening throughout the day. When your child talks back, acknowledge it! Repeat and expand on what he/she said, ask a follow-up question, and engage in conversation. “¡Tienes razón, está lloviendo afuera! Las plantas en el jardín necesitan agua.” You’re right, it’s raining outside! The plants in the garden need water. [Ask a question] “¿Qué tendríamos que ponernos para salir afuera hoy?” What would we have to wear to go outside today?
3. Increase the need
Search for ways to increase the need for target language use for your kids. Actively look for places and ways your child could have opportunities to speak the language in real, meaningful ways. Seeing and hearing the language used outside of the home increases the child’s positive view of it as well.
Family members– zoom, facetime, phone call
Outside support– a babysitter or tutor could provide language input
Visit somewhere local where the target language is spoken (like a market or restaurant)
Take a trip somewhere where the language is spoken
Enroll in a class (online or in person) or find a bilingual school program
Make a new friend– seek out other community members who speak your language-check in local social media groups, at your library, daycare, or school
4. Increase minority language exposure
Increase the amount of input in the minority language. Or, decrease your majority language use. Perhaps you have a plan in place, and you’re being consistent, but your child still won’t speak the minority language. There’s no harm in reassessing your strategies and increasing the minority language. We’ve had to do it a few times along the journey in my home. English is a strong force in our kids’ lives! All of the items in the list above for increasing the need would also naturally increase your child’s exposure.
5. Let older siblings be leaders
My oldest (who is 8) loves being the “teacher” and helping his sisters use Spanish. And they are always responsive when a sibling uses Spanish with them. If you only have one child, let your child teach you something in the minority language. If your spouse only speaks the majority language like my husband, let your child teach THEM something in the minority language-my kids LOVE getting to teach Daddy Spanish words and phrases. What’s more, when your child starts reading in the target language, it’s so encouaging for them and the siblings to read to one another.
6. Focus on vocabulary
Be proactive about teaching your kids new vocabulary words and encouraging them to use them. The new words could come from experiences you have together, books, music, or poetry. Perhaps you make a game of seeing how many times you see, hear, read, and say the new words! Especially if you’re the main source of language input, be mindful about teaching your kids new words and helping them use them. You could add in a new word when you’re expanding on your child’s language use. In the “Expand” example above, I could have taught a new word: “Está llovizneando ahora mismo. Llovizneando es cuando comienza a llover levemente. ¿Puedes decir lloviznear?” It’s drizzling right now. Drizzling is when it starts raining lightly.Can you say drizzle?
One way I do this at home is to have “words of the week.” Each Monday, we read aloud a different book together and pick about 5 new words that we’d like to explicitly focus on. I draw a picture and say in simple terms what the new word means. We might use the word in sentences, talk about synonyms (words that mean the same thing) or anytonyms (words that have the opposite meaning). We post the new words all week and review them. Read more about the importance of vocabulary learning-for teachers or parents.
Language learning is important, but our relationships with our children are essential. Listen and connect, don’t punish or chastise… instead, make it fun and engaging to use the minority language. It’s natural to get frustrated, overwhelmed, and feel like we’re not doing enough. Yet, we need to remember: we can be serious about our language goals for our kids, but we should be playful and fun in our approach to teaching them. We’re all better able to learn when we’re having fun and making memories together as a family.
I hope these ideas will help you encourage your kids to start-or continue-to use your minority language more often with you at home! Language learning is a lifelong journey, but the more input and opportunities our kids have for practicing the language in meaningful ways, the better the outcome.