5 strategies to increase input in your native language
As parents, we are constantly worrying about our children’s development.
Are they hitting their milestones?
If they haven’t hit a milestone at the “right” time, is this normal?
My child is doing X, but that book said they should be doing Y, is this OK?
When it comes to a child’s language development, especially a child who lives in a bilingual or multilingual environment, the worry fairies do their best work.
My child appears to understand language 1, 2 and 3, but is only producing in 1, is that OK?
My child is only reacting to the sounds of language 1 and is not producing at all, is that normal?
The first thing to keep in mind is that language learning, like potty training, learning to walk and giving up the bottle or pacifier, is something your child WILL learn eventually.
How many fully grown adults do you meet who still wear nappies, go to bed with a bottle and never learnt to walk? NONE.
The second thing to keep in mind is that all children are unique, and they will achieve different things at different times. Learning their native language or languages is no exception.
So, if your child has been brought into a multilingual environment and there is consistent guidance and input in those languages, then your child will learn those languages.
And if you are anything like me, you will spend a great deal of time agonising over your child’s language development. Once they start talking, you will have 2 emotions.
First, great pride that your child is becoming a fully functioning member of society. Second, you start wishing they would STOP talking about 100 times a day.
To help us better understand how we can maximise the native language input our children receive, let’s take a whistle-stop tour around language learning theories.
There are 4 main language acquisition theories that look at why and how a child learns language.
The Behaviourist Theory
Language is learnt through positive reinforcement. A child’s first utterances are imitations of what a child hears. These imitations get better with more practice. This practice occurs when the child speaks, and those utterances are positively reinforced and reacted to. The child gets the result they want, and this signals to them that their imitations are correct. So they continue to imitate, practice and make utterances. And before you know it, they are talking.
Language learning is an innate ability that we are all born with. The brain already contains the information it needs to decipher underlying principles and structures of language. These innate language learning abilities are activated when a child hears speech. Through these innate mechanisms, a child can decipher and apply the rules and structures of language. In this way language is developed and formed.
A child’s language development is dependent on their stage of development. A child is only able to learn something once it understands the concept. A child will only start to speak once they begin to understand the concept of speech, the rules and what it achieves.
A child’s language acquisition will follow this path. Once your child is ready and able to understand that there are multiple ways of achieving the same goals, through different languages, they will begin to use those languages to achieve those goals.
Language is learnt through interaction with a child’s caregivers. If a child does not receive input in a language, then they will not learn it. A child will learn the patterns of interaction, for example turn taking in conversation, before they even utter a word. It is through social interactions a child receives, that they learn a language.
If your child is still under the age of 2 and you would like to know more about their bilingual language acquisition, then check out this video.
How can these language acquisition theories help you with your child’s multilingual language learning?
These theories are all dependent on interaction in your native language. Your child will learn the language through imitation, interaction, positive reinforcement and/or goal achievement. But the main driving force for your child’s language development is interaction and input of language. All language.
The language learning brain mechanisms your child has, whether they are innate or based on cognitive development, will help your child to decipher and use the language rules and structures they hear from you.
If you would like to delve a little deeper into the science, then I recommend “Theories in Second Language Acquisition: An Introduction” by Routledge Publishers. This goes deeper into the main language acquisition theories, and the research currently being undertaken in the field. You can purchase a copy here.
Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist, has written several books on childhood language acquisition and provides a simple explanation for language acquisition in his short video here.
So, how can you maximise the input of your native language in a bilingual or multilingual environment?
If your native language is different to the language your child uses and hears in their outside environment, then you may be concerned that your child will struggle to develop their mother tongue.
There are 5 strategies that can be used to maximise the amount of native language input that your child receives from you.
Speak in your native language
When you are at home there is no reason why you shouldn’t be speaking with your child in your native language. Whatever you are doing and whatever their age, you should be communicating with your child. Talk them through whatever actions you are taking. Ask them questions. Identify objects for them clearly. This will increase the amount of language exposure your child experiences. Not only is this good for their language development, but it also supports overall cognitive and skills development.
Build a social circle of people from your home country
Building a social circle of people (preferably with children) native to your home country can help increase your child’s exposure to their mother tongue. They will learn how to use language in a variety of contexts, with people outside of their family circle. This not only teaches them rules associated with language, but also acceptable language to use with non-family members, ways to behave and any specific cultural linguistic and behavioural practices.
Click here to watch an inspirational video of 6-year-old Bella, a Polyglot speaking 8 languages.
Visit your native country
Taking annual trips to your home country to visit family and friends will also increase your child’s exposure to their native language. Spending time in your native country will also expose them to the unusual accents, and help their metalinguistic awareness.
Spending time in the country where the native language is spoken exclusively, means 24/7 exposure and will also help your child to make the link between languages and countries. Plus, it will give your child a chance to learn the culture and lifestyle.
Play Language Games at Home
Kids love games and it’s a lot easier to learn if you are having fun. There are so many language game ideas online. Some will require a little prep on your part. Others can be done using objects around the house. And many can be found digitally online.
Check out eslkidstuff.com for some games inspiration. Many are designed for the classroom, but there is no reason why they cannot also be played at home!
There are also some Cambridge English Language books containing activities, games and exercises that you can do with your child at home. Check out this article (insert hyperlink to Cambridge Books for Learners article) on our site for more information.
Tell stories and read books
Telling stories and reading books is a great way to make sure your child is getting effective, fun and creative language input.
Bedtime is an excellent time for your child to boost their cognitive development and language exposure. They are in a relaxed state, sitting still (for a change!) and enjoying themselves. Bedtime stories will usually have a variety of unusual contexts and use language that your child may not encounter in their daily life with you.
Let their imagination take over and their brains relax and process the language they are hearing. Books that you may read to your child at night also tend to have a lot of pictures and illustrations. This helps your child to make the link between the language and the images.
There are also excellent bilingual reading materials for young children. You can find some of them at languagelizard.com
Reflect on the day
Reflecting on events that have happened during the day is a good way of reviewing any language that your child has been exposed to that day. It is also just a nice way for your child to end the day, and can be used as an opportunity for them to wind down and process their day before sleep.
A final word…
It is easy to incorporate your native language into your child’s daily life in a Bilingual or Multilingual environment.
The most important thing that your child needs from you is language input. Make it creative, make it fun and try not to worry too much! Kids’ brains are amazing. If you practice some of the strategies above then your child will have all they need to develop as a Bilingual or Multilingual individual.
For tips and tricks on raising a multilingual child, check out this video.
If you are interested in hearing what worked for other parents, click here.