I am a proud parent of two trilingual daughters, with whom I only speak my native (minority) language. Minority language defines the language to which the child is less often exposed to, in my case it is Czech. I am an intercultural counselor, who has worked with hundreds of expats. I prepared a few tips, how you to empower children from multilingual families in using their native language.
Clients in my intercultural counselling practice Nicely Czech (Hezky česky) have shared their experience with me, that it can be often sad or stressful, when their children can’t or do not want to speak their native language. Therefore, let’s encourage our children to use your native language in an effective and playful way.
A child needs to have a good reason to be motivated to use a different language. The best motivation can be a game, song, fairy tale or a situation, in which the child can only speak her native language (for most readers this would be Czech). Another way can be to support her in learning how to understand their relatives, grandparents or friends who only speak the native language. It is important to speak your native language when you express positive emotions – when you are praising or cuddling with your child.
2. Quality time just for the two of you
Spend as much time with your child as you can. That is very important, in case you and your partner speak to your child in different languages. When you all talk to each other, your child probably keeps switching between the languages or just speaks in the main language. When it is just the two of you, talk to your child in your native language.
3. Encourage your child to take initiative
From time to time, encourage your child to choose what to do next. Encourage your child to take lead in the chosen activity and enjoy it together. Whether you draw or play a special game, let your child lead. Children will be more relaxed when doing an activity of their choosing and they will be more motivated to speak your native language.
4. Use your native language a lot
This may sound like simple advice, but it is often not easy or natural to do so. The more you talk, the more words you use in your native language, and the more your child will learn. Try to describe to your child more often, what you are doing or thinking. You can do this with very small children as well. Be authentic, you should feel comfortable. It may seem weird in the beginning, but I tried it and now my trilingual 3-year-old daughter speaks fluent Czech.
5. Music and songs in native language
Listen to music and sing songs in your native language. Tunes and emotions connected to music help children learn words and phrases, that would be otherwise difficult for them remember. Lyrics help enrich the vocabulary.
6. Books in your native language and good night stories
Do not underestimate the importance of reading books. Make sure, that you have books in your native language at home. Encourage your child to choose new books, in order to motivate them. Thanks to the internet, it is much easier to find books in your native language. In case children like a book, they will be happy to read it in any language.
Even if your child can already read, good night stories are a great way to emotionally connect with your child after a long day. Plus, books teach your child new words every day. When you read a good night story to your child and discuss the story with her afterwards, you are helping your child with enhancing their vocabulary and you do not even realize it. And love for reading books is one of the best gifts you can give your child.
7. Introduce your child to a doll, that can only speak your native language
This little trick works really well and it is a great motivation for children to practice speaking their native language. Introduce your child to a puppet, doll or another toy they like. Tell your child, that this doll can only speak your native language. Thanks to this little trick, learning the native language will become fun and your child will be motivated to speak more.
8. Play games in your native language
Playing games is a great way to advance you child’s vocabulary and they are fun! Children like to play and that gives them motivation to learn your native language. If you let your children choose games they are interested in, their motivation will grow. Word games, cards or board games are a great motivator for children to use their native language.
9. Travelling to places, where people speak your native language
It was not possible to travel much last year, but you can encourage your child to speak your native language by travelling to a place where people speak your native language. Plan to stay for at least two weeks. This may not be always possible, but it is a great way to show your child how to speak your language in a fun way.
10. Send your child to a bilingual school
Your child can learn both languages thanks to bilingual education. Look into bilingual kindergarten or school nearby.
11. Presents that help with learning your native language
You can buy your children Christmas or birthday presents, that will help with learning your native language. Books, games or puzzles that will encourage speaking.
12. Cook together
Children often like to help when preparing food for the family. Use this opportunity to teach your child kitchen vocabulary.i.
13. Au-pair, who speaks your native language
In case you are going back to work, it could be a good idea to find an au-pair, who speaks your native language. Research shows, that the more emotional language sources a child has, the easier it is for the child to use this language.
14. Language resources online
Find for your child online resources in your native language. There are many fun programs, blogs or webs that can help your child learn your native language.
15. Be honest with yourself
Ask yourself, what your connection to your native language is. Do you perceive it as inferior or do you have many negative emotions connected to your native language? If you have a negative relationship to your native language, your child will feel it and automatically try to avoid using it. In that case, you can contact a specialist, who will help you process your negative emotions or consider whether you would feel more comfortable using another language with your child.
16. Avoid negative consequences
Stay positive, encourage your child to speak your native language without force. Do not punish your child, if it does not want to use your native language in a specific situation.
17. Re-evaluate your strategy
If the strategies, you are currently using, do not work, re-evaluate whether you should try a different method. There are many methods parents use to educate their bilingual children, you simply need to find a method, that works for you and your child.
In case you would need to talk about a specific bilingual situation, our online psychological counselling for expats and other professionals working with us, are here for you.