Raising Bilingual Kids & Little Global Citizens

Bilingual Parenting

Establishing the Target Language with Your Kids

Establishing target language between siblings

Last Updated on April 15, 2021 by Bilingual Kidspot

Is Establishing the target language important for you?

Are you having a hard time establishing the target language with your kids? Are you trying to encourage one language while your kids keep speaking the other?

There are many reasons families wish to establish a target language for their kids depending on their situation. It may be because of where you live and which languages are spoken within your family, or your reasons may be more personal.

Either way, if it is important to you then these suggestions will help.

Establishing the target language

So, you´ve decided to raise your children to be bilingual. You have read tons of articles, blog posts, books, asked for advice, thought about it thoroughly, chosen your method (OPOL, MLAH, Time & Place etc), found playgroups or an immersion program, and from now on it´s just smooth sailing, am I right?

Sure, until you realise that children have a mind of their own!

You have pulled out all of the stops, but for some reason, your kids end up speaking the community language to each other! Your youngest is learning phrases like “me too” and “I want” in the WRONG LANGUAGE! Well, you are not alone.

Establishing a “relationship” language is kind of a big deal.

Whenever I meet people, I end up using the same language with them that I used when I first met them. Even if they are Spanish and English bilinguals, whatever language I spoke when I first met them, will be my go to language whenever I see them, even if it is not the language they are most comfortable in.

Anyone else like this?

The same happens with my siblings. Although my sister is completely bilingual, and we both spoke Spanish as our first language, we always spoke English together and seriously, I just CAN´T talk to her in Spanish.

My mom did a great job of establishing our relationship in English when we were kids in Venezuela.

I want my daughters to relate to each other in Spanish. English is the community language, and it is the language that they most often hear and use. They need be be there for each other to practice and grow in the target language.

Here I give you some tips and tricks for establishing the target language between siblings:

1. Make sure you spend family time in the target language

When raising children to be bilingual (or multilingual) it is important to provide plenty of exposure time to each language you want them to speak.

According to most research on raising bilingual children, children need around 30% of their target language exposure in order to become proficient in the target language.

One of the best ways is to provide time in the language as a family, teaching your children to relate to each other in the target language. Spending family time in the target language also causes children to become comfortable in the language and associate it with the happy feelings that are created during family time.

2. You will have to be an active facilitator and participant in their conversations early on.

Siblings can be great playmates and confidants, but those relationships need to be nurtured and modelled. In the same way, the use of the target language needs to be nurtured and modelled.

It may not be enough to simply send your children to play together, often, you need to facilitate the use of language.

That might mean you need to model conversation, ask them to repeat in your target language, remind them (but not force them!) to speak in the target language, and spend  time playing with them (sometimes that means we must re-learn to play!)

3. Encourage them to play games and to read to each other in the target language

When we talk about facilitating the use of language, we don´t mean just through chores and getting ready for outings. You also need to sit down and play! Starting something as simple as playing house, legos, or cars in the target language can be very effective.

Sit down with your kids and talk to them, ask them questions that make them think, and simply play. You don´t have to stay the whole time, but if you get them started in the target language, the likelihood that they will use the language will increase. Games such as memory, tic-tac-toe and other classic favourites are also great language starters.

Along with playing games, you should also read together in the target language. If you have read any of my other blog posts, you will know how much I advocate reading. It is the best thing you can do for your children!

From very early on, read to them to instil a love of literature. As they get older, make sure they spend time reading a loud to you and to each other in the target language as well.

4. Ask the older sibling(s) to help the younger sibling “learn” the target language.

One of the most effective things you can do to encourage the use of a second language is to ask the older sibling(s) to help teach the younger ones!

Kids love helping and feeling like they are special. Involving them directly and asking them to be a teacher will go a long way in getting them to cooperate. They won´t see is as something that you are pushing them to do and therefore resent it, but they will feel like your ally and willingly participate.

5. Use music, apps, shows, and movies in the target language.

A super easy and low friction way to increase the use of the target language in your home is to get music, apps, movies, and TV shows in the target language.

Recommended: Spanish Apps, Spanish Movies, Spanish shows on Netflix, Spanish books

Children may see the use of these things as a treat and therefore associate positive feelings and experiences with the language used. Filling your house with authentic language will support your goals and help kids bond over fun activities, even when you are busy making dinner!

6. Talk about how special their relationship is and how their connection in the language is also special.

Finally, don´t underestimate the power of conversation in language development! Children, even very young ones, are smart.

Talk to them about the importance of practising the target language and talk to them about the special relationship that siblings share with each other. Remind them that it is their own language and that not everyone speaks it, which is very special.

Consistency is Key

I use the above tips with my children and they are effective, when used consistently. It´s important to remember that consistency is key. Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint!

How about you? Have you struggled to establish a language relationship with your kids? What tips and tricks work for you? Share with us in the comments, we would love to hear from you!

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Establishing the target language with your kids

Author: Keli Garcia Allen is a certified Spanish teacher and works as a Preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom. She is the Head of Content for Learn Safari, a Spanish Learning game for children 5-9 years old. Follow her on her Website, Facebook, & Instagram.

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