Giving your child reasons to learn your language
When we’re raising children with different cultures it’s very natural to think about why you want your child to learn your language, and how important you believe it is for them to understand where you’re from. You can see endless positive reasons where your child will benefit. They will be able to converse with grandparents, travel, work abroad, improve their own mental development.
All of these reasons are real and justified. However, children often are too young to understand these benefits or don’t care about them so how can you create that desire or need in your child?
Kristie Prada is an English mum living in Italy raising her two children with English and Italian, her Husband’s mother tongue. Kristie is the founder of the Mammaprada blog where she writes on raising bilingual kids, Italian culture and travel. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.
It’s more than words
It’s very easy when trying to impart language knowledge to focus on just words. However, what makes a language interesting to learn for you is your connection to it and your child needs to feel that too.
Like us adults, children need a reason why they should learn. So sometimes taking a step back from actual language learning and building on knowledge of a culture can accelerate your child’s language ability later on.
Talk about who are you and why you want to be understood
Talk to your child about why you’d like them to learn your language. Often this point gets missed.
We are so adamant that we will teach our child the words that we don’t tell them why we would like them to. Don’t forget that children are interested in their parents.
Explain to older children why it’s important for you that they learn and you feel you can communicate with them more fully in your own language.
You can teach them funny phrases, that are only heard in your language and explain their meaning.
Talk about how you would like them to have friends to play with when you visit relatives in your country and if they learn they will be able to join in.
Show them pictures of you growing up, where you lived, specific things about your country, what that day in the picture meant to you. Children are interested in what their parents liked doing before they arrived. That they were more than just a mum and dad and found certain activities fun like they do.
We’re all different yet really the same
Culture is something which can differentiate us but also draw us together. As you start to show your child the elements which make your country/culture different to your home community you may start to find resistance building.
To balance this talk about how everyone gives things in in their life meaning, whether through religious beliefs, nostalgia from our upbringing, dates that we give special significance or simply the food we cook for our loved ones.
Despite the differences in how we live, celebrate, speak, we are very similar.
- Create a calendar of events for things which happen in your mother tongue country. Plan to do one celebration or activity a month. This can be as simple as cooking a particular meal.
- In February we make masks and bake ‘chiacchiere’ a sweet biscuit as this is Venice Carnival month. I show my children videos of Venice and describe how what should be a road is water. How even the fire brigade travel by boat. We then have some friends over, and the children all make masks and we explain why we are making them that week.
It actually helps if the children visiting are not Italian as they find this activity more fascinating. Then my children feel that they have a bit of credibility with their friends and that different can be good.
Encourage your children to think about who in their class or playgroups does different things to them and if they are intrigued to ask questions.
What will their friends think?
Probably the biggest barrier to your child actively learning your language is what his/her friends think. Or your child’s perception of how he/she will be seen even if it’s not accurate.
However many children will push back and reject to some degree the minority language.
It’s completely natural and some children will feel this more than others. I find the first child often feels this the hardest. It is generally a phase and with consistency on the parents behalf will pass.
Actively look for ways to increase your child’s exposure to other children who speak your minority language.
There are a variety of ways you can do this:
- Ask at your nursery/school/playgroups if there are any other parents who use your minority language. Write a short note for each of these asking if they fancy a playdate/park meetup.
- Check social media/facebook groups for storytimes/groups or start your own!
- Visit the country and ask relatives if they know any other parents in the town/village who might like to play with your children while you’re visiting.
- Invite friends from your minority language over for a holiday! Just having them and their children in your house will change the way your children see language use completely.
- Use all resources available! Use Skype, YouTube or even old fashioned pen pals to help expand your child’s view of what makes up a family. Draw a family tree, create a scrapbook together. What medium do they like to work in, use it!
Identity and acceptance
How we see ourselves especially when we’re young is a very fluid thing. Although your child may feel him/herself to be more one nationality than another at this moment in time, don’t feel downtrodden that this can’t change.
If your child has been learning two languages from birth I believe this stage of acceptance and consideration of their identity happens around age five.
At this age they are starting to become aware of who they are and what other families look like. Whether these families all speak the community language or different ones.
Older children are able to reason more. Understand family construction, how your family came to be half one nationality and half another. They can understand that the parents met in a particular country or situation. They will notice independently or even look for examples of other families similar to themselves to confirm or tackle any thoughts they have.
Young children aren’t able to do this as easily. Around age five children start to look at their peers more closely. They notice their friends’ parents. They glean pieces of information that a child may impart in class. They may tell you about how a friend’s mum is from a different country.
In the same way that it is useful and healthy for your child to play with children with your minority language I really encourage you to expose your child to mixed culture families of all types.
The more comfortable your child becomes with the concept that being different is actually normal the better!
Don’t ever feel you have to make light of your family’s heritage or play it down. Both parts should be celebrated and valued by you as parents and even if your child doesn’t see it at this moment don’t be tempted to belittle its importance.
Your family makeup is unique, your children were born with your special set of places, languages and customs. If you act like it’s a gift eventually your children will too.