Tips For Parents Who Want To Improve Their Own Language Skills

By Charles Gregory, January 2015

I know there are lots of parents out there who would love to bring their children up bilingually but unfortunately are not themselves bilingual. If that describes you, this post is written for you.

It’s a tough spot to be in, bringing your children up to be bilingual is a wonderful gift, but to be able to really immerse your children in your target language you need to be able to speak it yourself.

The good news is that becoming fluent in a second language is actually not that hard, I know this because I have done it myself (and am well on the way to fluency in my third language).

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A Common Myth

It is often believed that adults are not as good at language learning as children. This is actually not true… While children are very good at picking up languages, adults have a huge advantage – they can already speak one language!

A dedicated adult can reach a pretty high level in a second language with a year of part-time study. Compare that to a child who will normally take 2 or 3 years before being able to form simple sentences.

So no excuses! If you really want to learn that language, here’s how:

The First Rule: You Need Words

Many language courses focus too much on grammar, but most people find grammar boring. Remember, the reason you want to learn is because you want to be able to speak. The single most important thing then is to learn lots of words.

When starting a new language I like to aim for around 2,000 words…

That may seem like a lot, but if you learn 10 new words per day you will get there in just over 6 months. That’s very doable, but even at 5 or 6 per day it will only take a year. When I started learning Spanish I aimed for 20 words per day on average.

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How To Do It

The first step is to come up with a list of words. Start with a spreadsheet, in one column you will have the English word and in the other the translation.

The list should be a mix of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs and should be based on which words you will use most often. If you Google “top 100 verbs in X language” that will be a good start.

I also recommend including a separate entry for different conjugations:

                  What is a conjugation?

                  In English we conjugate verbs like this:

                  Verb: to be (irregular)
Conjugations: I am, you are, he is…

                  Verb: to dance (regular)
Conjugations: I dance, you dance, he dances…

                  Here’s an example in Spanish:

                  To be (for traits): Ser
I am: Soy
You are: Eres
He is: Es
Etc…

Do this for all of the most common verbs and uses, and include past and future tenses too (eg, I danced, I was dancing, I have danced, I will dance etc…)

Some people try to just learn the patterns, but learning the actual conjugations will help you to be much more fluent when you start speaking, and you will learn the patterns intuitively, so that eventually you be able to conjugate new verbs based on what sounds right.

Memorising The Words

Ok, so you have a list of 2,000 words to memorise, what next? This may seem like a mammoth challenge, but you will be amazed by what you can achieve when you try.

I like to use a free computer program called Anki.

Anki is a “Spaced Repetition” program. In simple terms, it shows you new vocabulary over and over at timed intervals. So the first time you learn a new word it will show you that same word again a minute later, then 5 minutes later, then 10 minutes…

The more times you review a word the more ingrained it becomes in your memory and so the longer the interval becomes. Each time, you will see the English word and you try to remember the translation, if you remember correctly you mark it as correct and the interval gets a little bit longer. If you forgot it, the interval resets to one day so you can relearn it.

It should only take around 15-30 minutes per day if you do it every day. You will learn 10 new words each day and review any old ones that are due to ensure you don’t forget them.

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The Second Rule: You Need To Speak

Once again: don’t worry too much about grammar. As soon as you have a vocabulary of 500-800 words you have plenty with which to start talking. At first you will speak in a very broken way, but you will be able to make yourself understood.

The great thing is, because you already have the vocab in your brain, when you start using it it will move to your fast memory and things will slot into place incredibly quickly. It often only takes 5-10 hours of speaking practice to get to the point of being able to hold a simple conversation.

So what are the options?

Move Abroad:

If you can live in a country where they speak your target language then that’s ideal (you lucky thing) but if not, don’t worry…

Get A Language Tutor:

Face to face practice with a professional tutor is ideal, especially when starting because the tutor can answer any questions you have about why things are said a certain way and they will be able to plan lessons around your ability level.

You can find a UK based language tutor here, or of course on plenty of other sites online. I would suggest telling your tutor that you mainly want to practice conversation and avoid English as much as possible (even if doing so is tough at first).

Get An Online Tutor:

This is best in addition to a language tutor (and a good way to save money). There are plenty of sites online where you can find online language teachers for conversation practice. This site has plenty of native speakers all over the world.

An advantage to this is that you can select a teacher who doesn’t speak much English. This will force you to use your target language.

Language Exchanges:

If you want to save money, and don’t mind giving up some of your time, you could try a language exchange. The way it normally works is that you find a partner who speaks your target language and wants to practice their English. You then chat (via Skype) for 30 minutes in English and 30 minutes in your target language.

                  Bonus Tip:
                  During your conversations you will come across new words, ask your tutor to write them                down and after your session, add them to your Anki deck, this is an excellent way to      supplement your Vocabulary.

The Third Rule: Put In The Time

The reality is that when you are learning the right way, it doesn’t take that much time to improve. If you can put aside 20 minutes per day to review your vocab on Anki and then 3 hours per week for conversation (either with a tutor or online), you will soon be able to converse at a basic level.

If you can get your other half to do the same, then pretty soon you will find that you can chat to one another in the target language, and that is when the true immersion will start!

Other Tips

Finally, don’t be afraid to try other things to help round out your learning. Here are a few suggestions:

  • When learning vocab, use Forvo to check how to pronounce them correctly
  • Get a Kindle and get some children’s books in your target language
  • Find some music in your target language, learn the words and sing along to it

Foreign or second language learning through craft

Craft with bilingual childrenThe secret of learning a language is that there is no “secret”, basically a language is a tool for communication, and the best way to learn it and practice it is communicating. However, this can be difficult on a day to day basis, especially if both parents and children are busy with work, school, after school clubs and their social lives. So, this is when we really need our imagination and crafty hands to come up with interesting and fun activities that don’t look too much like “school” work. [Read more...]

Mum, what is sweet in Chinese? 5 Steps to ease your child into a foreign language

Chinese writingWell, I don’t know, sweety, but we can find out… I never thought that it would really get to that point where they actually “think by themselves” and start showing interest in other languages. Of course, it was going to happen, but when you hold your little bundle of joy for the first time, be it in hospital or at home, you just think about protecting it and what you can give it, you don’t think about what they may ask in the future! I don’t really push other languages and I don’t really intend to send them to formal language lessons, unless they want to go, of course. At the moment, making sure we keep the balance with three languages is hard work enough. Also, personally, I don’t believe that acquiring two or three languages when you are a child gives you a wand that magically makes you learn another language effortlessly when you wave it around. [Read more...]

The importance of early years bilingualism

This is an issue at the top of the to-do lists of many parents, along with music, sport, school and many other activities that are thought important for children nowadays. The British Council in Madrid, an education centre established to bring English education to those Britons living abroad as well as many local families who want their children to grow up bilingual, will host the II Jornada de Bilingüismo en Edades Tempranas (the Second Conference of Early Years Bilingualism). Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist with a specialization in cognitive and language development in children, will speak at the conference about the benefits of bilingualism. 

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Ellen believes that the fact that children can absorb and assimilate information very easily means that the early years are the ideal time to learn another language. She also supports the theory that learning a second language has great cognitive advantages that will help the brain stay healthy and prevent early degeneration. She also highlights other, more mundane, advantages like helping people living in a global world and giving them those extra tools for survival in our modern economy.

In a previous conference held by the Spanish branch of the British Council, a bilingual educator, Alexander Sokol gave some pointers to parents who wanted to bring up their children bilingually. Some of them are things that I have already mentioned in Bilingual Parenting as being important for the relation between bilingual parents and children, like making sure that you are not just pointing at things and saying the name, just teaching vocabulary, but speaking in simple sentences in context. Even if you have just started speaking to your child in the second language, using it in a meaningful context will make things much easier.

Sokol also believes that all approaches are okay if they work for your family. He suggests that parents shouldn’t worry so much about “teaching” their children, because he thinks that their function is not so much academic as it is educational in a playful way. Any activities and language acquired through the parents can then be reinforced if necessary at school or with private tutors.

He points out that before undertaking any “language” activities with your children, parents should think about their reasons for wanting their children to learn that language, living in the country, having family abroad, or they just want them to speak a foreign language. There are other variables to take into account like age of the children, previous knowledge, resources available, etc.

Sokol has suggested some ground rules that may help us plan our strategy:

1. Start with sentences rather than single words.
2. Translate without translating (explaining in simpler language, things they may know, use body language to explain concepts)
3. Be patient and don’t expect too much (remember the silent period)
4. Subtle corrections.
5. Take advantage of those moments when they are doing their favourite activities.
6. Give them time to get ready to speak (silent period)
7. The best resources are their environment and their games.

Alexander Sokol is bilingual, from Riga, he learnt to speak Russian and Lithuanian at the same time, as most people in the city. He also learnt English and speaks to his children in English.

These two people are, in my opinion, great examples of people who support bilingualism in the early years, and like Alexander Sokol, there are more and more  people educating their children in a language that is not their native language at home. Teachers and tutors can support the work done by the parents at home, but at the end of the day, the parents are the people who spend more time with the children and there lies the key to success, the amount of time and the quality of activities in the language we want them to learn.

 

 

7 steps to teaching your kids a second language

In the world we live in speaking at least two languages is rapidly becoming a necessity. So, one either has the money to pay for tutors, or has the opportunity to live abroad or speak another language to pass on to the children. Many parents around hat world are catching up to the idea that one doesn’t have to be a native speaker of language to be able to teach it to their children, especially if one can afford a bilingual education.

Teaching your child a second language that you learnt yourself in a classroom as an adult or as a young adult is possible. As anything the extent to which your children will become fluent in that language depends on many different factors, like how much exposure they get in that language, if they have enough motivation, if there is a large enough community around you speaking that same language or how much opportunity there is to visit the country where they speak that language.

Here is a bit of advice for those of you who are thinking of teaching your children a second language:

1. Get them early. It is obvious that one can learn a language at any time, after all, many parents speak a foreign language they learnt as adults. However, it is also true that if you start speaking to your child when he’s still a baby, he will have the opportunity to absorb it at the same time as the local language. For him, hearing two languages at the same time will be normal, that will be his norm.

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2. Find a pattern of language use that fits your purposes. If both parents speak one language each, that is called OPOL (one parent one language). Although, not necessary to follow that pattern, it is useful in the sense that it provides maximum exposure time, 50-50. Of course, this could vary in different situations, for instance, if one parent is out working most of the day, and this would affect the balance of languages, or if the parent who speaks the second language also wants to speak his/her native language. In this case, one good solution would be to choose a suitable time of day or situation where this parent would speak the second language. For instance, deciding to speak the second language for two full days every week, and the rest the local language, or speaking it in certain situations, like a second language playgroup.

3. Build a support group around of people who speak that second language and have committed to speak it to their children at home. Sometimes there are already established playgroups that you can attend to enhance the language learning experience of your child, other times, finding a group is slightly harder, and you may want to consider starting your own group of parents by placing ads in local playgroups, free newspapers, etc.

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4. One of the obvious steps is looking for educational establishments that cater for bilingual children, like bilingual nurseries or primary schools. However, this may not be readily available in your area, or they may not be available in the language you require. In that case, do not despair, having a full time parent with the knowledge of a second language in his or her head, is a great advantage already, especially if you make sure you provide your child with enough input in the shape of books, cartoons, educational activities and materials, etc.

5. Talk, talk, talk and read, read, read. You have to talk, because, as anybody will tell you, you learn language by hearing it. The more you talk the more your baby will hear and will learn. The more you read the broader your vocabulary and structures in that language will become, and you will be able to speak more and better to your kid.

6. Stop worrying. Many people worry about passing on the wrong accent or the wrong meanings. This is not something I’d like to dismiss lightly, but on the other hand, you should consider the alternative to having your child speaking, let’s say, German with English accent and making mistakes sometimes, which would be a kids who would just speak English. The answer it’s obvious. Also, consider that having a teacher available almost 24/7, that means you, the parent, is much better that having a teacher available just 2 to 3 hours a week, even if this teacher is a native speaker, which in many schools they aren’t.

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7. Turn language learning into quality parent child time. Even if your child doesn’t achieve fluency, having him understand or even speak a bit of that second language virtually without effort, when you had to learn it in the classroom is already a great advantage. Also, consider all the hours of quality time you can spend with your child enjoying fun activities, or eating that typical food that you both love so much. That is priceless!

Last but not least, I hope you enjoy your language sharing adventure with your little ones, and please, let us know if  you have decided to start exposing your child to a second language.

Learning Spanish on a budget, a parent’s approach

lets-play-bingo-1-602195-mNowadays, most people realise the importance of knowing  how to speak a foreign language, and consequently they want their children to have this great gift as well. However, not everybody does speak a foreign language as an adult, are these monolinguals doomed, then, to have monolingual children? [Read more...]

Review: A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker 4th Edition

51+pw1vgunL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_With this new edition, the new classic Colin Baker’s Guide to Bilingualism presents us with answers to the most common questions that parents with bilingual children are faced with. At the same time it introduces new information adapted to the times like bilingualism in the digital age and incorporating the latest research in multilingualism, neonatal language experience, language mixing and the effect of siblings.

The structure of the book is easy to follow, the material is divided in sections that deal with the main aspects of the bilingual family like education, language development, problems, or reading and writing. Each section contains the most common questions that come up among bilingual families and the author’s answers.

All in all, I think Colin Baker’s A Parents’ and Teacher’s’ Guide to Bilingualism is a good basic manual to have for all of those parents to be who are pondering the pros and cons of bringing up their children bilingually. It answers most of the common questions about the subject, and dispels many of the myths.

Review: Learning to Read and Write in the Multilingual Family by Xiao-lei Wang

51yc9AbzaTLRaising bilingual or multilingual children requires dedication and hard work. It also raises an important issue, what to do with Literacy.

It is likely that the children in a multilingual family will attend a school or some form of formal education in the country where they are living, where they will be taught to read and write. The teaching of the home language or heritage language as Xiao-lei Wang refers to it will fall almost exclusively on the parents, even if there is a supplementary school in the heritage language that the children must attend.

In most cases, the teaching and the development of Literacy in the heritage language or languages, the main instruction and assistance will come from the parents themselves. This is a daunting task for most people, especially if they haven’t had any experience in education before, but it is more so when the task takes place in a foreign country and possibly in one or two other languages.

Xiao-lei Wang’s book, Read and Write in the Multilingual Family, is a good manual to accompany you on your multilingual trip. It is informative, giving examples of real case scenarios, but its main strength, in my opinion, is that it is designed as a manual, even giving you tasks and opportunity to reflect on your practice and what you have been doing at the end of every chapter.

The book also includes three sections that deal with different age groups, 0-5 years, 6-11 years and 12 to 18 years. It gives lots of practical ideas for each age group, and it includes bibliographical references with each chapter, giving you the opportunity to learn more about a particular aspect of Literacy development.

It is not often that one finds a book so inspiring, and given that I intend to bring up my children not just multilingual but also multiliterate, I will certainly keep this book close to me throughout my children’s formative years.

6 easy steps to start your bilingual playgroup

When we found ourselves faced with the decision of wether to bring up our children in 3 languages for us the decision was easy – of course, yes! Now one of the main obstacles we had to overcome was the fact that we had one Spanish native speaker and one English native speaker, so, what were we going to do with French!

I speak fluent French, although not natively, and I haven’t lived in a French-speaking country for any considerable length of time. So, besides my French-speaking input, we felt that the girls would benefit from social interaction in French. So, building a local social network became one of the main priorities.

It varies from country to country, depending on how much parents work and how much childcare time the kids have, but in England the ‘playgroup culture’ is very popular. Playgroups in the UK are generally run by volunteers in church halls or community settings. They are big rooms with toys, where parents can chat and meet other parents and have a cup of tea or coffee while the children play. There is usually a nursery rhyme and story time session at the end.

Foreigners and people with special interests have quickly caught up to the idea of running a playgroup and have seen the advantages of doing so to expose their children to more language. In most British cities and large towns you will find at least one foreign language playgroup. However, it’s relatively simple to start your own playgroup if there isn´t one already. Here you will find some pointers:

1. The first concern when starting a new playgroup is financing. Many playgroups are run by volunteers at churches and the church takes responsibility for the running costs like electricity, water, coffee, tea, snacks, Xmas parties, etc. However, if you want to run a private playgroup, you will have to rent a room or find a public space that is suitable and free to use, like a public library.

When I started our French playgroup, Les Petites Grenouilles, they let me use the space in the children’s area in the Bristol Central Library for an hour on Saturday mornings. The location was ideal as it was in the centre of town and I didn’t have to pay any money, which was good as the French group consisted of one person at that moment, me. Later on, when we had a few people, we moved to cafés and play-cafés where they would let us use the space for free, but parents had a drink at the café. At the moment we are at that stage and the group is thriving. An older group I also belong to, which was started back in the 1980s by a group of Spanish mums – La Casita – rents a hall on a regular basis. However, they have had time in 30 years to build a regular base so there is always enough money to cover the rent of the hall.

Renting your own hall with space to store toys and books is the ideal any playgroup should aspire to. However, let’s walk before running – just start small and take it from there. There is no point in stressing about not having enough money to cover the rent, which the organiser would have to cover.

So, look for a nice family friendly space in your area and ask them if it´s okay to do a session. Generally, parents who are really invested in their children’s bilingualism would prefer having a small playgroup/meetup in a café than nothing at all. You can’t always please everybody, and many of the parents who would complain about having a playgroup in a café would not come to a playgroup in a hall either, in any case.

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La Casita is a playgroup for Spanish speaking people in Bristol, England. It started as a group of mums meeting in their sitting room and 30 years on the group is still alive and renting a hall every week, term-time.

2. Build your numbers little by little, and don’t expect a big turnout at the beginning. Although there are possibly many parents out there with your predicament, reaching them may be difficult initially. But don’t give up!

At the first meeting of Les Petites Grenouilles there was just me and another French lady. Now for each meeting we have at least five families and over 80 people on our mailing list. It has taken over three years to reach this point but if I had given up after the first few months when it was just me and maybe one or two other mums, then we would not have a thriving playgroup now with parents volunteering to write for our blog, our Twitter account, and organise events like the Easter Egg Hunt.

So, start small but keep to regular sessions. For instance, start with once a month, keep contact details of all attendees, especially email, and maintain a mailing list. Just print some black and white home-made flyers in your printer at home and leave them at other playgroups, libraries and areas where there may be people with your language. Use online ads (in the UK Gumtree is very popular and works well). Email local free magazines that cater for families, etc. But, do keep in touch through the mailing list, even if a family can’t come now, if you keep in touch they are likely to attend one of the sessions when they are free. Also, they will tell other parents about the sessions. Once you have a regular base you can increase your sessions to two a month, and so on. From one Saturday a month we increased to two a month, and just this month we have started weekly sessions on Friday mornings.

3. Don’t turn down help. Be open about accepting help and support from other parents. Quite often they will want to help and participate but they may be shy to ask – or they may think that as you are the “main organiser” and it was “your idea” and, so, you would´t want help. Of course, you want help, and you want other parents to participate, this is the only way for the group to become an organic entity that grows with its needs.

However don’t expect help to be forthcoming. You will probably find that it takes quite a few sessions to find those special people who really want to take part in the group and help. They will be the “regulars” who will come with rain, snow or thunder. Be patient, just build the playgroup and they will come!

4. Have at least one special event a year. Depending where you come from or what part of the world you’re living in, you will be celebrating different festivities. In our case, given our background and the country we are living in, England, our main event is the Xmas party. Even on the first year when you may not have many people on your mailing list, it is important to celebrate that special event. This will not only bring the regulars together and strengthen budding friendships, but you’re likely to attract interest from people who may not be able to come to regular meetings.

Our first Xmas party was quite big considering that our regulars weren’t that many. Lots of new parents attended and some of them have stayed and have turned into regulars.

Don’t go overboard with preparations, especially if the money is tight. Rent a special place, this time it is important that it is your space and not a café or a public space that you have to share. Shop around, find a nice church hall that can be rented out for events. Three hours should be enough, leaving half an hour for arrival and preparation, and half an hour at the end to pack up and clean.

5. Keep a structured but flexible approachAll people like structure to a certain extent, and especially this help in playgroups, where people will be able to remember the “activities” they have taken part in and if they enjoy them they will be happy to return and participate. However, the group is not there to teach children language – this is something parents should be doing at home. The group is to reinforce the language and the culture, as well as create bonds with other people who share the same language. This bond or relationship is not just for the children but also for the parents. So, make sure there is plenty of time for parents to socialise and chat, and that children are allowed enough time for child-led play.

A structure that is common for may playgroups and has worked for us is:

- Arrival, greetings, people get drink/coffee, settle down, chat.
- Introduction song (pick up a song that you repeat each session to help people remember names). We sing:

Screenshot 2014-04-13 21.55.49I have a surname, a name

I have a surname, a name,
Two eyes,
A nose,
A chin,
Quickly, tell me your name,
To continue the song!

Your name is…
Hello…

- We continue with some nursery rhymes.
- Followed by an easy craft. Here children are free to join or play. Parents will help their children or talk to other parents.
- We end the session with a couple of stories.

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This is from our last session.

6. Money matters. Money, as we all know, doesn’t bring happiness but certainly helps to buy stuff to organise a playgroup. If you start small, there is no need to start talking money at the beginning. Start in a café or a free meeting area, once you have enough people to start preparing more structured-organised activities, you can ask for a small fee that you can save to pay for rent and materials for your Xmas party. The aim is not to make money from the group, but to have some money saved so you don’t have to stress about covering costs for special events.

For the first couple of events I organised for Les Petites Grenouilles I had to cover the costs up front. This is not an ideal situation and a bit stressful. So, to avoid it, we set a fee per session, as they do in all playgroups. Now, we can cover the costs of hall rental and materials upfront and if there is any money left save it for the next event, or any materials we need to buy.

It would be great to hear from any of you who is thinking of setting up a playgroup, or who has done so already successfully. Please, share with us your success stories, comment on the post, or email as on:

bilingualparenting

Five ways to boost your bilingual learning environment

Creating a great bilingual learning environment for your children can take a little bit of work and creativity but it needn’t be a chore. Here are some ways we used to keep three languages ticking over.

1. Ensure both languages are spoken at home

This may sound painfully obvious but it’s surprising how many bilingual families start conversing in one language. The ‘one parent, one language’ (OPOL) strategy is a good one as it ensures children interact in both language throughout the day.

Join local language groups or start one yourself!

Join local language groups or start one yourself!

2. Connect with others locally

Unless you live in a very remote area chances are there are language exchanges, parent groups, and playgroups in your town and city. Our children go to a Spanish-speaking playgroup most weeks and a French family meet-up too. If you can’t find anything going on locally, why not start something with likeminded individuals by posting notices on social media or local advertising boards? By interacting with others that speak the language outside the immediate family, the language will seem more ‘real’ and alive.

3. Use media media in the other language

Find books, music, radio and films in the other language and make sure they are easily available to enjoy. Our children enjoy watching unique Spanish and French cartoons but on YouTube we can find British favourites like the ubiquitous Peppa Pig dubbed into those languages too.

Video conferencing with friends and family overseas can really help!

Video conferencing with friends and family overseas can really help!

4. Exploit technology to connect with friends and family overseas

Webcams and Skype are a brilliant way to interact with friends and family overseas. Our kids love to talk on Skype with their Aunt and Grandmother and sometimes Spanish-speaking friends in the USA. Skype can be a great tool when there are no speakers of the second language in your locality.

5. Explore Apps and computer software

For better or worse, our children love to use an iPad and, like some tech-skeptical parents, it’s something I’m not too concerned by as I’ve discovered all sorts of beautiful interactive story books and educational games that they really enjoy.

How do you keep language alive at home? Let us know in the comments