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The Power of Conversation in Language Development for Young Children

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Don’t underestimate the power of conversation with a Bilingual Child

There is a common misconception that raising a bilingual child means that you need to actually “teach” them a language. What many parents don’t realise, is that consistent conversation is the easiest way to promote language development.

Think about it. Monolingual children learning one language, are not “taught” the language. Instead they are spoken to from the day they are born, and they simply pick up the language along the way. Why should it be any different with bilingual children? Instead of having conversations in one language, they are having conversations in two languages.

I have taught many young children English, and I have found that the younger the child is, the less “teaching” I have had to do. Even with older children, apart from learning grammar, and to read and write, simply engaging in conversation is what helps them learn the language more efficiently. When children are immersed in the language, the learning comes naturally.

If you think your child is lacking in exposure to one of their languages, conversation can be a powerful tool. Here are a few ways to use conversation with your bilingual children to help their language development.

Read WITH and not just TO your child

Reading books to your children is extremely important, however reading with them is just as important. Even if they cannot yet read the words, from a young age children can tell a story through pictures. Once in a while, sit back and let them tell you the story. If you have read the story often enough to them, they will probably remember the words to some of it, and if not, they may be able to tell it in their own words.

My four year old can only actually read a few words, however he can tell you word for word, the story of The Gruffalo. The pictures are used as prompts and help him to remember the story. Even my two year old can remember a few phrases from the story, and when he can’t, he makes them up himself.

Make silly mistakes 

It might sound silly, but making mistakes during your conversation can actually help your child learn the language. Once they have learned to say something the right way, start “slipping up” and making small mistakes to see if they pick them up. I often purposely make mistakes to see if my four year old is concentrating. He will usually start laughing when I say something like “Come on, stand on the table, it’s dinner time”. Next, I hear “Mummy, we don’t stand on the table, we SIT at the table, silly” I continue like this so he corrects me. He thinks he is too smart. What he doesn’t realise, is that by doing this, it motivates him to keep the conversation going with me, without him getting bored.

Create creative conversation

I like to create stories with my children. I start off with one sentence and my son continues. We take turns in sentences until we finish a story. For example, my four year old is obsessed with pirates and this was the start of one of our recent creative stories:
Mum: “In a far away land there was once a magical…”
J4: “…pirate”.
Mum: “ who lived…”
J4: “…in the sea on a big boat.”
Mum: “All was calm until one day there was a thunderstorm and…”
J4: (with a sad face) “…the pirate fell off the boat.”
Mum: “He splashed into the water and started swimming to shore, but…”
J4: “…a big shark came and was going to eat him.”
Mum: “With his magical powers, the pirate managed to…”
J4: “…push the shark away and swim really fast to the island…”
and so on.
The story doesn’t always make much sense as a whole, and as you see, it can sometimes get pretty dramatic. But it is fun and keeps the conversation going.

Talk a LOT

Talk, talk, and talk some more. Narrate what you are doing, explain your movements. I find it best to comment and then question.
For example: “Let’s put our shoes on and go to the park… What are we doing?” First the comment, and then the question. This way they should repeat what you have said.

The more you talk, the more words they will hear and the more vocabulary they will be exposed to. Show them that you are interested in what they have to say, and help them out when they can’t think of the words they need.

Take time to Listen

Listening is just as important as talking. Although you should talk to your child a lot, you often need to step back and listen to what they have to say. Let them finish what they are telling you, even if they make language mistakes. Although it is good to correct your child, sometimes it is best to let some mistakes go if the conversation is flowing. They can be picked up later on.

Conversation is the key to promoting children’s language development whether your child is are monolingual or bilingual. Talking is effective, but by engaging in conversation together with your child, you will provide them with the language exposure they need to perfect their language.


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4 Comments

  1. Love this! It os co very true. I am a tru believer that natural languages learning is the best way from an early age. After all, children can communicate in almost any language, if they want to, can’t they! Thank you 🙂

  2. I love all these tips. We already do most of them. My daughter loves reading to us already (she can’t read but she knows some booKS by heart). I’m going to start trying the story telling one 🙂

    • Thanks Isabel, the creative stories are great fun, and a great way to get them using their imagination! We come out with some of the weirdest stories, some of them would actually make great ideas for kids story books!

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