Creating a Living Language Classroom at Home on a Budget

Those of us working to raise our children bilingually all have unique stories to tell.  Why did we choose our target language?  What language methods are we using?  What are our family’s goals in teaching our children a second (or third, or fourth?) language?  Though our paths may differ vastly, one thing is for certain.  In order to be successful, we need access and exposure to our target language.  We need language resources.  And the richer and more varied these resources are, the better. Ann Marie is here to tell us about how she creates language resources on a budget.

Ann Marie Ferrante is a mum to 4 children with a background in elementary education and foreign language acquisition.  She runs a program teaching Italian to preschoolers and writes a blog at piccolipassi123.com. 

Language Resources at Home

Depending on where you live, and what your target language is, you may be one of the lucky ones.  In my area, local libraries are stocked with children’s books in Spanish, and there are Spanish language classes for children readily available, and even immersion preschools, for those who wish to go that route.

In my case, I wasn’t so lucky.  My family’s target language is Italian.  My husband grew up speaking it in his household and I studied it in school.  But aside from a few Italian-speaking family members we see on occasion, we are sadly lacking in resources to help our four children learn Italian

Over the years, I’ve worked to build up a library of Italian children’s books.  This gets expensive, though, and books are only one way of exposing your child to a foreign language.  Children can tire of books, and some little ones just aren’t big fans of reading quite yet.

There’s Youtube, of course.  And we’ve watched our fair share of American kids shows dubbed over in Italian over the years.  But T.V. can be limiting.  It’s a passive form of language exposure, and sometimes, I felt like I had to nag and bribe them just to get them to watch.

So what is there, besides books and T.V.?  There’s music, of course, and we often have Italian music on in the car and while we play.  But I wanted more.  I wanted a living language classroom where my children could be immersed in the language as much as possible, given our limited circumstances.  But with four children and all the expenses that go with raising them, my ideas had to be budget friendly.

That’s when I realized, I could make my own Italian language resources.  And by doing it myself, I could tailor them to fit our family’s needs.

Our Living Language Classroom At Home

The first idea that popped into my head was a morning checklist.  Something we could hang in the hallway upstairs and refer to every day as the kids got ready for school.

After probably too much time than I care to admit (I’m hopelessly low tech), our morning routine chart was finished.  I decided to keep it fairly simple – just a five item check list printed off the computer with some colorful clip art to go with each one.  To make it interactive, I laminated it so the kids could check off each box with a wipe off marker once the task was completed.

Once I saw how well received my morning routine chart was, I got inspired to keep going.  From there, my living classroom began to take shape, and my children’s use of Italian grew significantly.  Below are some ideas to get you started on your living language classroom at home.

Do it on the daily

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Part of the success of making daily checklists is that they’re referred to frequently, so there’s continued exposure to the same sets of words or phrases that are relevant to your children’s daily life.  So if you have a checklist for your morning routine, why not one for your bedtime routine?

You can look for other routines you do throughout your day to get inspired.  Like a chart of body parts to post near the tub, for example.  Or a list of items to pack in your child’s backpack for preschool.  Or a weather wheel to track the weather each morning, using construction paper and a paper fastener as the pointer.  Make a mental run-through of your day and you’ll find plenty of ideas to get you started.

Time to eat!

Mealtimes are an ideal opportunity to incorporate your family’s target language into your day.  Try making a set of paper placemats, drawing and labeling where the plates, napkins and silverware go.  To make it interactive, your kids can help decorate the placemats.

Then, have your child help you set the table at mealtimes.  When you suddenly exclaim, Oops, I forgot the fork in your target language, he’ll easily see from your placemat which item is missing.

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While you’re at it, how about a picture menu so you and your child can play restaurant?  Keep it limited to four items or so, so she won’t get overwhelmed, and take turns being the server and the customer.  Feel free to make it silly.  For some reason, my youngest thinks it’s hilarious when I pretend to be a rude guest at a restaurant while she fumbles around trying to get me what I want.

Toys have feelings too

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Now that you’ve got your child’s physical needs covered – eating, sleeping, dressing, and so on – what about their emotional needs?  To help my children practice their feelings words, I put together a Feelings Meter.  This was nothing more than a long strip of construction paper showing different labeled faces – happy, sad, excited, scared and angry.  You can use clip art, magazine cut outs, or draw your own faces.  Maybe even some photos of your child making these faces, for some added fun.

Next, I attached a clothespin to the chart and hung it on the window sill.  Throughout the day, I would find opportunities to refer to it.  If we were on our way to a birthday party, I would ask in Italian if they were excited.  If the answer was yes, they would move the clothespin to the excited face.  Later, if they got into a squabble over something, I would ask if they felt angry.  Back to the feelings meter we went, and the clothespin was moved again.

It’s in the books!

Another fun homemade idea is to make books out of family photos.  If your family is taking a vacation, snap a nice variety of photos while you’re there and print them out when you get back.  Then, glue them onto construction paper and write a simple sentence underneath in your target language.  Gianna goes to the beach.  Gianna eats ice cream.  Gianna sees a seagull.  The simpler the better, so your child can pick up on the words and eventually read it with you by heart.

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Or better yet, if your toddler has suddenly developed an obsession with trucks, make your own picture book about trucks.  Use clip art or magazines, or grab a cheap coloring book at the dollar store and cut out pictures from there.  His latest obsession can suddenly be your best friend when it comes to speaking your target language.

Who’s game for some homemade games?

Another resource that has given me lots of success over the years is endless sets of memory cards.  With the use of clip art, you can make a matching set for virtually anything – opposite pairs, body parts, clothing, weather words, terms having to do with the seasons or holidays or sports.

Thankfully, my youngest never tires of a good game of Memory, so these sets have served us well over the years.  If Memory isn’t your kid’s thing, you might have to be a little more creative.  One example is to make a set of cards representing all four seasons and play a version of Go Fish, with the object being to collect all the cards relating to one season.

Games with spinners have also been helpful with our Italian.  In order to learn vocabulary for clothing, I printed four bear templates, along with four sets of clothing for each – a shirt, pants, shoes and hat.  Then, I made a simple spinner using a paper clip (lots of methods online for making spinners).  On the spinner, there’s a space for each clothing item, a free choice space and a put one back space.  Whoever dresses their bear first wins!  So simple, yet so effective.

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Multi purposing, anyone?

Chances are, you already have plenty of items lying around your house that can easily be used as a resource for your target language.  The game Candy Land, for example.  Perfect for colors and numbers.  We have a set of Color and Shape Bingo that we use all the time for Italian practice.  Twister, an oldie but goodie, is great for colors and body parts, plus it involves plenty of movement to keep your child engaged.  A quick scan of your game closet should reveal quite a few possibilities for target language practice.

Start your own living language classroom at home

When creating your living language classroom, the options are only as limited as your imagination.  And the best part is, each item you make can be designed according to what your family needs and what your child would enjoy.  With these items in place, you’ll find that you can effortlessly incorporate your family’s target language into your daily routine, and more importantly, you can have fun while doing it.

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