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“In English, can you tell me in English?”
Finding ways to improve language skills isn’t always easy!
Just because you speak to your child in your native language, it doesn’t mean that they will automatically start to speak it back, especially when everyone else around them is speaking another language. Sure they might understand everything you have said, but speaking back takes a lot more effort and sometimes children tend to go with the easier option.
Languages need constant exposure
From birth my husband and I have been speaking with our children in our native languages, English and Italian. As we live in Italy, the community language is Italian, therefore I am the only person who speaks English to them. With my eldest son, I was his primary caregiver until he was 18 months old, his first words were in English and he seemed to understand English more than Italian.
It all changed however, when he started at the “nido” (nursery). He was just starting to actually communicate at that age, and because he was having so much exposure to the Italian language, it improved immensely. Before I knew it, Italian had taken over.
He preferred speaking in Italian and although he could understand everything I was saying in English, he would usually reply to me in Italian. I found myself continuously saying to him “In English? Can you tell me in English? What is it in English?”. It was hard work.
I knew that I was going to have to do more to improve his language skills in English and bring it up to the same level as his Italian. Here are some of the things that helped us improve the minority language:
1. Talking a LOT
When you are alone with your child, make that time count the most, and talk to them constantly. Explain everything you are doing and ask lots of open ended questions that require an explanation.
Instead of asking “Did you have fun at the park today” in which they would answer “yes” or “no”, you could ask “what was your favourite thing you did at the park today?” Using open ended questions actually has to think of a response and it gets the conversation going.
For younger children who don’t talk yet, listening to you is important, so although they may not be able to talk back, they are taking in everything you are saying so again just narrate what you are doing.
I know it can feel silly sometimes talking so much and getting no response, but the more you talk, the more words they hear on a daily basis and that is the main thing, so just keep talking!
2. Reading books EVERY DAY:
Reading books in the minority language with and to your children daily is extremely important to improve language skills. It helps them to learn new words that they may otherwise not hear building their vocabulary, and by talking to them about the story, it helps them with their comprehension.
Our nightly routine consists of a good half hour reading bedtime stories. I stagger my kid’s bedtimes so that I can read with each of them separately.
We usually start reading together, but with a toddler it doesn’t always work out so well. For them to get the most out of it, I then take turns with each child reading a couple of books with them before they go to sleep.
3. Singing songs EVERY DAY
Singing songs not only helps to improve the minority language, but it also plays an important role in your child’s development. By exposing young children to singing every day, it can help them to learn different sounds and words, and also help with their memory.
Children in general love singing, and they don’t realise they are learning. My boys have been humming and singing since before they could even talk, even now my little one, who doesn’t usually say more than a 4 word sentence, can sing the whole song of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star word for word by heart.
Listening to music is great too and you can find almost anything you want on YouTube these days, however children learn best with human interaction so wherever possible singing to your child in person is best.
4. TV only in the minority language
Make no mistake, children need actual human interaction to learn a language and TV shouldn’t be used as a substitute for that. However, for children who have some understanding already, it can be quite a useful tool.
If your child already has a good grasp on the majority language, then it makes sense that if you allow them to watch TV, that they do so in the minority language.
Our children don’t watch TV at home at all, however we do have an I-pad with a few of my son’s favourite shows and movies.
As he doesn’t have an afternoon nap, he knows he can have some down time after lunch with his I-pad. Most of what is on there is in English and recently we have also added some Spanish shows for him as he is now learning Spanish as a third language. The only time he watches anything Italian is if he is at his nonna’s house.
5. Video calls and visiting family
If you have the chance, visiting family as often as possible is the best option. Not only does it give your children a chance to bond, but they will be able to reinforce the language by speaking to your children in person.
If you aren’t able to visit, technology is the second best option. It is becoming easier by the day to communicate with loved ones from afar with apps such as Facetime, Whatsapp and Skype.
As my family are on the other side of the world, it’s not easy to visit often as the flight is so long. Since having my children, I have tried to make it home every year or two to visit but other than that, we try to have video calls as much as possible.
It’s not the same as being there in person but at least it allows them to hear English from someone else other than me.
6. Being Consistent
Being consistent can be difficult, and it can get quite tiring at times but which ever method you follow make sure that you stick with it. It may sometimes be tempting to switch to the majority language because it is easier, or your child will respond better, but it is not going to help your child in the long run and there is a chance they may become a passive speaker.
I am quite strict and stick to OPOL (One Person One Language) with rare exceptions. In public or in a group of friends where everyone is speaking Italian, I continue to speak to my boys in English and I expect them to answer me back in English (even if sometimes I get strange looks from people around me). The exception would be if there are other children and I am speaking to all of them, in this case I would translate.
I also try to have my boys talk to each other only in English where possible to reinforce it just a little more and we are getting there.
I can happily say my four year old’s English is pretty much at the same level as his Italian, the only thing missing is his Australian accent, he hasn’t quite got that yet, though mine isn’t so strong anymore either having lived abroad for the last 10 years.
With my toddler we are having the same issues, but with the experience I have had it is much easier this time around, and with his big brother being another source of English I am not on my own.
“Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children.” – Michael Gove