Apparently, it is impossible to forget your native language completely, which is good news. Whatever your child learns during the first years of their childhood, it changes their brains forever. According to studies carried by Canadian researchers with the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) the brains of children who have been exposed to two languages in an early childhood and later forgot one language, still process language-associated sounds like bilinguals.
This means that it’s never too late for you as a parent to refresh your child’s memory and help him or her remember your language when you see that they are beginning to lose it. That is what has happened to my friend Elsa and her little son Max, both of whom you could read here.
When to start? “Now” seems the best answer. I believe in the saying that it’s never too late but in some situations – and language is one of them – the sooner you start, the better. It’s not even about the brain’s processing skills but about your daughter’s or your son’s attitude to the changes you are going to introduce. Be prepared that not necessarily your child will love the new challenge and will be happy, grateful and appreciative that you want them to understand and speak another language. They are comfortable the way they are and it’s quite likely they will feel as if you’re trying to get them out of their comfort zone. Also, it’s even more likely that they won’t understand why you are doing this “to them”.
How to act if your child is refusing to speak your heritage language and, even more, he is beginning to forget it? “Gently” is the first thing that comes to my mind. It’s so easy to spoil it when as adults we are too eager or too impatient, or too insistent.
If you cannot travel to visit your family, instead you can use your telephone and Skype. With younger children, it might be more challenging to have them sit through the whole conversation (on Skype) or stay interested when they cannot interact face-to-face (telephone). Whatlittle helps a lot in our case is allowing my little son to make a “proper” phone call all by himself (he just still needs a bit of help with dialling the numbers fast enough) instead of me calling him to speak with his family in Poland. He engages much more and talks much longer over the phone when he feels completely responsible for the conversation.
Max couldn’t demonstrate it stronger to express what he would really need. Time. The most significant part of every learning process. He would also need an active support from both his parents to help him experience all the fun related to speaking his minority language and being bilingual.
1. Immersion in the language is a key. A trip to the country where the community speaks the minority language and ideally, visiting relatives and spending even a couple of weeks with them will work like magic.
2. If you cannot travel to visit your family, instead you can use your telephone and Skype. With younger children, it might be more challenging to have them sit through the whole conversation (on Skype) or stay interested when they cannot interact face-to-face (telephone). What helps a lot in our case is allowing my little son to make a “proper” phone call all by himself (he just still needs a little bit of help with dialling the numbers fast enough) instead of me calling him to speak with his family in Poland. He engages much more and talks much longer over the phone when he feels completely responsible for the conversation.
3. Communicate with your child in your minority language. Start in the comfort of your home. Don’t make them feel like you are judging them.
4. Create a genuine need to speak your heritage language. Make new friends, find or organise monolingual clubs or playgroups.
5. Read books in your minority language, watch films together – think of any option, which could be entertaining. Don’t teach them. Make it fun!
6. Find games and apps in your minority language. This trick usually works pretty well.
7. Associate particular situations with the particular language. E.g. a Chinese game must be played in Cantonese or Mandarin, bath time only in Spanish etc. I’ve recently spoken with a doctor who was born in Italy and spent the last 12 years living in the UK. Married to an English lady and being a busy professional, he didn’t have much time to speak in Italian with his eight-year-old son Luca, who was now reluctant to speak his father’s language. Sundays were the only days when the father would be at home all day, therefore to break the ice I suggested having Italian Sunday lunches. Creating Italian dishes to increase his son’s interest in his dad’s heritage and by the way speaking Italian seemed to be a natural part of what could be a fun and quality family time.
8. Listen to music. Sing together. With my son, sea shanties as “pirate songs” in Polish are a must every other day. Every day I also sing to him Polish lullabies and songs from my childhood.
9. If you speak your minority language, and your child answers in the majority language, correct them. Simply and naturally. Be calm. Don’t teach. Make it fun.I am repeating myself but one cannot overestimate the importance of this attitude.
10. Be a great role model. Speak your language with joy and pride.
11. Siblings can be of great help! Involve your children in games and activities where they can communicate with one another in your minority language. We are all learning from our experiences. Quite often only with the second child parents start actively working towards bilingualism, so in many cases it’s the younger kid who can speak equally well both the minority and the majority languages. Let them help you while playing with the older brother or sister.
12. Praise your child for his achievements in speaking your heritage language, no matter how small they are.
13. If he or she says something in the community language, repeat the word or the whole sentence in your heritage language and then smoothly answer or comment, also in your heritage language. Particularly at the start, don’t make your child repeat each sentence after you. Give it some time. Wait until they grow their confidence.
14. Hire a babysitter who speaks your minority language. Alternatively, ask a friend for help. Even if it’s just a few hours a month, it’s still a good beginning.
15. Be understanding, patient, loving, and persistent. Do not give up.
ANTI-Suggestions, i.e. Things I Would Never (although for some families they work):
Pretending you don’t understand the language. As a parent, I believe it’s always better to show your child that you are trying to be helpful and friendly. Children are clever and sooner or later (assume it’s going to be sooner) they will notice you’re only pretending (read: lying). It’s not great for your parent – child relationship unless you can find your own way to handle it without making your child feel uncomfortable or confused. When my son was younger (2-3 years old), sometimes with an apparent smile I would pretend I didn’t understand what he was saying. It was important, though, that he would always fully understand it as a game to play and took it as a joke.
- Refusing to answer until your child expresses themselves in the minority language. Just like the point above – think how much it could strain the trust between your child and you, especially if your child is still very young.
- Punishing for not speaking the minority language. How to comment on it? No!
- Using a “teacher’s tone of voice”. It’s easy to use it when you forget that what you are doing is an introduction to a language and not teaching. All of a sudden you haven’t stopped being this loving mum or dad because you are helping your child become bilingual. Don’t make it a chore.
It’s not easy to raise your child bilingual, and the support from both parents is one of the most important parts of this challenge. If you have been persistently working towards your child’s bilingualism, once they reach puberty you can be sure, to a certain extent, that they won’t forget your minority language completely (which doesn’t obviously mean that you don’t have to support this language anymore). Until then, as parents we just have to be patient, make sure that we keep an eye (or rather, an ear) on what our children speak and how they speak. And, think of all those glorious, happy moments when your child can freely talk with his family in their heritage language or read a letter, or a birthday card. And enjoy it.