Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: February 2017


Monday, February 20, 2017

Best Practices for Supporting Child's Minority Language Development in a Multilingual Family

“Руль”(Rul’) is the first word my son said almost 7 years ago. It means a steering wheel in Russian. Back then I had lots of doubts whether or not I would succeed in passing on my heritage language and raising a trilingual child. I had exactly same worries you have right now. Would my son prefer speaking the father’s and the country’s language - Italian? Would he be able to speak with his Russian grandparents? Would he be able to speak a third language that I and my husband communicate in with each other - English? Would speaking multiple languages cause a speech delay? Would he mix the languages?

Two years into our family's trilingual journey my worries have doubled with a birth of our little girl. How to share my time between the two kids? How to support their language development, if they have such different needs? One does not speak yet at all, another is already experimenting with making phrases. And another worry, when the first words finally came from my little girl's mouth: What language would my children speak to each other? Would they choose to speak the minority language, Russian, or would they prefer the country language, Italian?

Now the time came when I am stressed more about my daytime job than about my kids’ language development. They reached the very ambitious goal that I set for them and myself. They are fluent in two languages and understand and speak some of the third one. They are 5 and 7 year-old, and have plenty of time to work more on their minority languages. I gave them the tools to continue doing it on their own. So they both read Russian books, play (btw, they love building lego houses for their toy animals) and speak almost exclusively Russian to each other, and sing in all three languages.

Definitely being motivated helped me a lot on this journey, but I would not go this far without my husband’s support and without the following best practises of supporting minority language development:

1. Changing the family language strategy as you go.

It is ok to change your multilingual family language strategy at any time and adjust it to your child’s language learning needs and to your family dynamics.

Before the child is born we all have a perfect plan in mind how to proceed with raising a bilingual or multilingual child. What language to speak and when. But once we have a little one in the arms, things change. We learn about our own and our child’s abilities with every step of the journey. Do not hesitate to adjust your plan. No need to be stressed about raising a polyglot, it is much more important to have a happy child and family after all.

Also different languages need to have a reinforcement at different age. Sometimes what worked in the beginning of the journey does not always work when child gets older.

2. Talking to your child & asking questions.

No matter how old your child is, even a newborn, talk to him.

If your child does not talk back yet, just describe what you do and see. He is listening and learning. I could see great results from my describing-everything-I-see practices, my kids Russian vocabulary is very well developed.

If your child already speaks, ask questions. What? Who? Why?...
I often do it after school or after reading a book or watching a cartoon. Kids are eager to talk when they are excited.

3. Reading books.

In my opinion reading is what develops child’s vocabulary best, because you can read books describing different life situations and covering variety of topics that a child won’t always encounter in everyday life.

My kids loved reading a book about a poney club and learning specific terminology in relation to horses. If not for this book, they would not have known all those words as they do not have an opportunity to attend a poney club.

I would advice to start building a home library with minority language books from the moment your child is born. Just to give you an idea how big your home library can be, about a year ago I decided to count how many Russian books we have at home. We had more than 350 books! And I read almost all of them with kids!

4. Living your cell phone aside.

Wherever you are home or outside - keep your cell phone away. Especially during the first years, you need to dedicate your time and attention to your child. It is difficult to talk to your child if you have a phone in hands. Isn't it?

Make an extra effort to talk to your child at playgrounds, don’t just seat with a smart phone in hands. Describe what your child is doing there (here we are going back to the point #2) How fast he is going down the slide, talk about his feelings. You can play an imaginary game there too. Slides are often becoming my kids boats / cars they going on them somewhere, see things. I take part in it to be able to enrich their vocabulary and it is so much fun!

5. Following your child’s interests.

Children are not very different from adults. If someone is talking about something we are not interested in, we will not pay much attention to it.
If you’d like to maximize your child’s language learning, be aware what he learns best when he is interested in the subject.

6. Watching TV in minority languages and if it’s not possible, just turn it off

I find it a good practice for both kids and parents. Children always listen and very attentive to whatever they hear around them. Even when they play in another room, their ears are like little sponges that soak whatever they hear, even sounds coming from TV in another room.

7. Using variety of language learning resources.

Small children have a short attention span, so it is good to use different games, activities and language input options throughout the day. Here are some of the ideas:

- music CDs

When kids play they can listen to the music.

- kids radio stations

My kids love listening to a Russian kids radio station where other kids call in and chat with DJs

- audio books

You can find the same books you have at home and let your child listen to them read by a different person.

- board games

check, if you can add more rules to work more on their vocabulary or ask your child to vocalize the actions.

- picture lotto games

You can buy one or make it yourself.

- activity books


- drawing and talking

This is perhaps my favorite activity for all age groups. Great for working on letter sounds and writing.

Mixing art, material objects and imagination -
a recipe for language development

8. Keeping a book always close to you, so you can read to your child aloud anywhere you go!

I always kept a book in my purse and still do. We read at a doctor's office while waiting for an appointment; in a park, when kids get tired running around and whenever I have a chance! You never know when the time is right ;)

9. Connecting with other language speakers.

I am pretty much the only Russian language input for my children, but it is obviously not enough. Children need to hear other people speaking the languages they learn. There are several ways to achieve it:

- Talking to relatives using video call programs such as Skype, Whatsapp, FB messenger etc, there is a huge choice now.

- Connecting with the local community. You can ask your country embassy for information.

- Weekend language schools are available in some big cities. Kids often not only learn the target language there, but also get extra instructions in school subjects.

10. Singing and telling bedtime stories.

Until recently my kids had a very long going to bed ritual. First I read a book, then we were singing songs, and followed by a story. Can’t say it was easy for me - it was rather tiring! But it is a truly wonderful way to connect with kids.

11. Making your child's language development as a priority number ONE.

Make minority language development as you goal for the first 5 years of your child’s life and you will have less to worry about later. If children know enough words and have no difficulty expressing themselves in different situations, they will use the language with you. Besides you won't need to be stressed about creating a NEED to speak the language. You speaking the language to your child will be enough reason for him to use it and speak it back to you. The only worry that will remain is to continue support the language development as your child grows. Unfortunately kids slowly detach from us making this task somewhat difficult.

You can find more about setting priorities reading my article:

I hope my tips on raising a bilingual/ multilingual child will help you!

Good luck !

the piri-piri lexiconS is for Supporting heritage language development at home. It is the topic I decided to cover for A to Z of Raising Multilingual Children. Go to The Piri-Piri lexicon website to read other great tips from bloggers from around the world.

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