Raising Bilingual Kids in a Digital World

Let’s face it, we are living in a digital world, and no matter how much we try to fight it, screen time is becoming part of daily life as kids get older. Raising bilingual kids sometimes means we have to try different tactics in order to make use of it effectively. Below you can find some strategies on how to raise bilingual kids in a digital world.

Raising Bilingual Digital Natives

I love sharing “back in my day” stories with my kids. They listen wide-eyed as I tell them tales of a time when kids’ TV was only on at the weekends and for an hour or so after school. If you missed an episode of your favourite show – that was it, you’d just have to rely on your friends to fill you in. Which, to be fair, they generally could because everyone watched the same shows at the same time.

If you were really organised and had a nice mum, she could maybe be persuaded to put in a video cassette and push record at the right moment. My mum mostly rolled her eyes at any such requests.

These days, there is almost a scary amount of options for watching, listening and reading. While there are plenty of downsides to screen time for children, there are also many upsides.

Bringing kids up with multiple languages is not always easy and sometimes we parents need to be a bit sneaky. We don’t want our children thinking it’s boring and hard work to improve their language skills so using technology to make it fun is a win–win.

There will come a time when we have less control over our children’s time, so while they’re still little we can grab the chance to really develop their literacy skills in their minority language.

Screen-Time Strategies for Bilingual Kids

Over the last few years we’ve trialled a couple of different screen time/tech strategies for increasing exposure to the minority language for our twins, with varying degrees of success. Here are some of the ones we’ve found useful.

Phones

On our phones, we have a folder for each child on the front screen, which prevents them from swiping through everything and opening up a million apps by accident. The folders have a few games as well as access to the books app. Our community language is Swiss German, so I only have books and games for them in English. That means if they’re bored of waiting somewhere and are all allowed to use my phone, they’ve got to do it in English. 

E-readers

Although it breaks my heart a tiny bit, I’ve started buying kids’ books on the e-reader. Once they learnt to read independently, I found we had too many books that they only read once. It saves so much weight on trips! But it really makes me wish for a library full of English books.

We treat the e-reader like a normal book and don’t have any restrictions on how long they spend on it, but we do restrict what gets bought. It’s way too easy to spend a lot of money just because a child ‘can’t wait’ for the next book in the series. Last Christmas they got vouchers for the e-reader for the first time. I can tell you they’re much more cautious when spending their own money than they are when spending ours!

I only buy English books on the e-reader because we have a wonderful library just a short walk from our house for them to use for German books.

Computer

As they start to learn a little about computing at school, I’ve been showing them how computer programs also have language options. There are lots of differences between English and German grammar and learning to switch languages helps avoid the demotivating lines under words that are actually correct (although sometimes Word gets confused anyway!).

Tablet

The iPad is definitely the favourite device in our house. It’s loaded with kids’ apps, music, drawing apps, videos etc. We’ve done a lot of literacy work on it with apps such as Teach Your Monster How to Read and Jolly Phonics. Now that they’re at primary school, they’re using flashcard apps like Quizlet to help with spelling etc.

When they’re allowed screen time, I set a timer on the iPad so that they know when they have to put it down. This is so much better than me nagging them. Also, this way they know that it’s ‘fair’ and ‘even’, which any parent of more than one child knows is the gold-standard in parenting siblings!

There are loads of apps available for restricting time on devices, which we’ll look at more in the future, but for now the timer seems to be enough.

Internet

Our one major rule is that there always has to be a purpose for using the internet, such as needing to look up something, not just mindless browsing. Of course, we have the kid controls and they’re only allowed to use the internet in the living areas.

They’ve quickly learnt that knowing two languages opens up more areas of the internet to them. They know that if they want to learn about native animals in our area, they’re better off searching in German. If my son wants an update on a rugby score, then English is the best language to search in.

Sensible Use of Screen Time

Sensible use of screen time is great way to create that ‘need’ that’s so important for developing the minority language. It helps connect children to the language by showing them that other people in the world speak it, write in it, create games in it – not just the people in their family/friend circle.

Plus, if it keeps them quiet and still for half an hour at the end of the day, I’ll take it!

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Author: Karin is a writer from New Zealand, and lives in Switzerland with her husband and her bilingual twins who speak English and German.

Raising Bilingual Kids in a Digital World