Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Encouraging Bilinguals and Second Language Learners at Home

Second language acquisition has always been one of my favourite subjects. I first studied English and Finnish philology, so this was one of the most important topics to study as future language teachers. By chance, I ended up working as a kindergarten teacher in an English kindergarten, and then I realized that this was the perfect job for me.

It's wonderful to be able to teach my daughter my mother tongue and a foreign language. She has always been interested in learning languages and she is eager to make herself understood. She started using 4 word sentences when she was 15 months old, and every day she learns new words, some that I’m sure I didn’t know until much later (like adverbs of frequency and some weird adjectives).

But, as I keep telling parents, all children go through sensitive periods (I still need to write a blog post about that) and phases when they are captivated by certain games, or prefer working on specific skills (gross motor, logical thinking, mathematical skills, fine motor, social skills, etc.). So don't be alarmed if your child doesn't say that many words - try to encourage her to communicate and let her develop at her own pace.

Also, following your child is very important when it comes to language acquisition. If your child isn’t interested in reading or singing, try to find what captivates her the most and work with that. For example, if your child is interested in puzzles, get some on different topics, to help develop her vocabulary.

Here are some of the things we’ve done at home to encourage our little one to develop her vocabulary in both languages:

- We sing songs daily, in both languages (mother tongue and second language). I’ve chosen some traditional rhymes that exist in both languages. If the translations are not very similar, I’ve translated them myself, so they have almost the same lyrics. Think of such songs as The Wheels of the Bus, Old MacDonald, The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, Five Little Monkeys, that have already been translated in many other languages.

- Nowadays, we sing songs together. I stop when I get to the part of the song that she knows and let her sing. If she’s not in the mood to sing along, I just continue myself (or ask if she wants to stop singing altogether).

- Routines are great for learning basic vocabulary, because they involve repetition. We often describe what we are doing at the moment, or what we are going to do next. During diaper changes, while cleaning up, during mealtimes, while brushing teeth, etc. Once our daughter could understand the sentences in Romanian, we started introducing a few Finnish words at a time. For example, we used to say “I’m going to change your diaper. Diaper, vaippa.”. Later, that turned into “Vaihdan vaippasi” (change your diaper), then longer sentences. Mealtimes provide wonderful opportunities to learn new vocabulary: explain what you are eating, how you cooked it, etc.

- While on walks, we describe what we see, even if for us this seems trivial and unimportant. Children learn by observing the world around them: “Oh, look, there’s a bird on a branch. The bird is chirping.”, “The boy is riding his bike. He seems happy about it.” The same rule applies here: we started introducing words in Finnish, then sentences.

- Since she was a few days old, we described what we thought she was interested in, and later what we thought she was saying: “Oh, you are looking at the painting. You seem to like this bowl in the painting.”

Once she started understanding and using the words in our mother tongue, we started introducing words in her second language. Nowadays, she uses both words, if she remembers both. Sometimes she prefers Romanian words, and other times Finnish ones.

- We introduced baby sign language when she was 6 months old, but she used signs herself after she could say those words.

As an English teacher in a group with international kids, I use gestures alongside words, to make myself understood. When I see that the children have understood a word, I drop the sign for it, too.

- We read books in both languages. Vocabulary books with realistic pictures are wonderful for this purpose.

- We always avoid teaching her new words or speaking the second language altogether when she is stressed, tired, or not in the mood.

Do you have a child who speaks more than one language? How did you encourage him/her?

For more tips, read my previous post, Encouraging Language Development in Babies and Toddlers.

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