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7 Tips For Monolingual Parents to Raise Bilingual Children

My parents are my backbone. Still are. They’re the only group 

that will support you if you score zero or you score 40. Kobe Bryant 

One of the main challenges of moving to Germany five years ago was to support our children in their language learning journey because we, the parents, didn’t know a single word of the German language. Frustration paid us a visit and despair made me rethink the reasons why we have decided to move abroad so abruptly.

Was it possible for our kids to acquire a language that we didn’t speak at the moment? How could we be their backbone when we felt so inadequate? But I knew it had to work. We just needed guidance, a plan, and tons of willpower. 

Since part of my expat plan A was to ignore the existence of plan B (a.k.a safety net/going back home), I decided to focus on making things work in our new country and I chose to equip myself with the right tools to promote language acquisition at home, even though I was also learning German myself. It was true, I couldn’t help my children as much as I wanted because of lack of knowledge, but I knew I was able to provide emotional and material aid if I had the right attitude and persistence.

Therefore, I began to process this adventure from a different angle; task that wasn’t easy because I have spent several years of my life teaching languages and I was always the one providing input regarding learning a foreign language. I must confess I felt strange and out of place. Definitely, out of my comfort zone. But hey! I didn’t give up and I got terrific results. 

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I have always talked to the kids in Spanish. It is our way to keep the native language strong. Picture taken in Galveston, Texas 

You don’t speak the target language, what to do now? 

First you have to lay the foundation for your children to learn a new language and feel supported by you along the way. Don’t forget that it is important to highlight the reasons behind this decision, ask for their opinion and promote motivation in many different ways. We cannot force our kiddos to acquire another language, so things need to be handled with tons of love, communication and assertive but fun resources. This is what we did to help our children learn German; however, these tips also apply to other languages in and outside the birth country. 

1. Learn the language yourself. Does “teaching by example” ring a bell? Learning the language is a great way to work together with your children and develop stronger communication skills at home. Additionally, it is a fool-proof way to improve your resume, exercise your brain and gain confidence while traveling. It sounds like a win-win situation to me. 

2. Invest time and resources in printed material, videos and music. You don’t need to spend a fortune, check your local library, second hand bookstores, webpages, and Pinterest to look for tools that your children could use at home to work on the communication skills they need to be fluent. Keep in mind that it is necessary to develop four different aspects of communication: oral, listening, writing, and reading. Prepare yourself with the right material. 

3. Contact people that speaks the target language. This is a great way to get your children practice their new skills with native speakers, and it can be done on a regular basis to keep the input of real-like situations going on. At the end, our children are learning the new language to communicate, and it is through speaking that they will achieve higher fluency levels. No idea who to talk to about it? I am pretty sure you have relatives, friends or colleagues that speak the target language and would be glad to help you out! Hiring a tutor is also a great thing to do. Nannies and au pairs are very common in the expat community as well. 

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We promoted language learning by traveling to countries where the target language was spoken. Picture taken in Zurich, Switzerland 

4. Go on, don’t be shy, speak out! Being self aware of our own failures is very common while learning a language. We feel like awkward toddlers baby-talking a language we are far away from mastering. All of this while our children listen to us, carefully, attentive. But they really don’t care. Remember that helping them by reading a text or simply singing a song to them in the target language is good enough. By speaking, we facilitate  the learning process and give emotional aid to our little ones. They will thank you for it in the future. 

5. Be creative. The idea is to provide our children with as much exposure to the language as possible, thing that can be difficult to do when we don’t live in the country where the target language is spoken. However, don’t despair! There are many ways to promote learning of a foreign language. I highly recommend visiting websites from bilingual families and multicultural blogs to get ideas, motivation and support. This is a journey better done with the help of those who already have a little bit more experience than us. I personally like Instagram for quick tips and Pinterest for crafty ideas. Don’t forget YouTube for songs and sing-alongs in the target language. I actually got so many ideas from the web that I even decided to creat Little Nómadas as a way to help parents transit the rewarding journey of raising global minded children. 

6. Put your apron on. One thing I have learnt all these years of teaching Spanish to children and adults is that we need to keep things fun. So what better way to learn vocabulary in the target language than cooking a traditional recipe? Imagine spending time with your children making a delicious dish, learning about the culture and practicing new terminology in a interesting way. You don’t need to know the language for that matter. Simply write down the vocabulary, look for it online so you can listen to the correct pronunciation and voilá!!! You are good to go…. don’t forget to go to the supermarket though, you still need buy the ingredientes. Additionally, you could plan a special family dinner to enjoy the end results of your cooking and learning process and you can invite relatives and friends to show off your new language skills. 

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Learning by playing. Our kids speak German with friends at school, sports, and play dates. Picture taken in Fulda, Germany 

7. Get your kids a pen-pal. Writing and reading are two of the language dexterities that your children will need to develop. Having someone to exchange emails or even snail mail using the target language is a wonderful tool to support the learning journey. Just remember to check well before contacting other people to pen pal. Our children’s safety always comes first. 

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We use the OPOL System. Dad always speaks English with the kiddos. Picture taken in Prague, Czech Republic 

So what are you waiting for?

There are many ways to promote language learning at home, you just have to dare to leave your comfort zone and make the process effective, entertaining, and stress-free. Parents support is the best thing your children could receive from you, I’m pretty sure they won’t be scrutinizing your pronunciation or accent, they will be delighted to have you on board! Just remember this will be one of the greatest investments in the future of their careers and it is totally worth it to try!

Make it fun! 

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