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    Sustaining and Reinforcing English (or any language) in the Home

    By Janine Brimbal

    You would like your child to be at ease in speaking, reading, and writing in your language. However, you are living in a foreign culture where there is little support for your own language. Perhaps your spouse and most of your friends all speak a different language.  How can you, at home, provide your child with the skills to communicate in your language?

    First, let’s acknowledge the fact that some of us might not accomplish everything we want: for our children, we are parents first, not teachers. Children have different language capabilities, and a variety of physical, emotional and social factors influence their language acquisition and competency. Nevertheless, we all can have a positive impact on our children’s language skills, and the developmental effect will always be cumulative. Language learning is the result of motivation and opportunity; the more a child is given exposure to any language, and the more he or she has pleasurable experiences in that language, then the more likely the child will understand, speak, read, and write in the language.

    Transmitting a total comprehension of a language also means passing on values, gestures, and national (as well as personal, familial or regional) communication habits (“Uh huh!” “Oy vey!”). Language is a social phenomenon, which is why many people prefer the more encompassing concept bicultural rather than bilingual, which merely describes language competency. Although our children may be considered pedagogical problems by some people, we can prepare them to assimilate into a second culture by surrounding them, as often as possible, with our own loving linguistic experiences.

    Listening is the primary and most passive way to acquire a language. It is both easy and fairly non-threatening. The child remains silent while absorbing information, risking neither ridicule nor error. We talk to our children as they grow: we name things, give them directions, sing together, and make observations about the world. They listen to our stories, they overhear our conversations with other adults. Recorded, written, and electronic materials are important but secondary to the learning relationship established through regular, continual communication contact with a loved one.

    Because listening is the major means of transmitting language, we need to be attentive to the appropriateness of our messages. As parents, we are the primary interlocutors during the formative language learning age (approximately up to 5 years old). By making the effort to translate or explain when necessary, we provide the child with vocabulary elements, syntax models and tonic phrase patterns. We should be aware when using “baby language” that we should use correct forms. Eventually, we need to consciously include expanded vocabulary and increasingly complex sentence structures as the child matures.

    Listening is the first step and children rarely balk at listening. Listening encourages them to participate and interact, and eventually to respond to speakers. Continuing to provide them with English (or another language) to listen to is essential to them speaking in English.

    Speaking demands more active participation. Some children speak with more ease and frequency than others. They will answer our questions in their simplest form, be it the common language around them or a “pidgin” mixture of their familiar languages. As they get older and more self-conscious, children may hesitate to produce and perform. Forcing them to answer in one specific language rather than another may add an artificial and negative emotional challenge. Insisting on a particular language may lead to a power struggle which could be counterproductive both to real communication and to the acquisition of the target language. I suggest we “get off our children’s backs.” By addressing them in the target language, we provide a linguistic role model, despite the language choice of their replies. The experience will remain positive as long as it is not coercive. Children should be “encouraged”, not “forced”!

    Research on primary language acquisition reveals many disputable theories. However, some ideas are generally considered valid. Language acquisition is cumulative but not a regular linear process. Long, apparently latent periods may be followed by spurts of high activity and integration. Some elements may seem to be forgotten, and later reappear. “Errors” are not necessarily representative of failure to learn. (When a child says “He “goed” home,” she shows acquisition of important conjugation rules, and lack of only one irregular verb form, “went”).

    Language as a social activity is best learned through face-to-face interaction. At an early age, you can begin finger plays and singing games, encouraging your child to sing along. When possible, work into call and response patterns, such as “Where is Thumbkin?”. Chanting and clapping games can be extended to toys which can interact with the child.

    Younger children will react to solicitations from dolls or toys used as puppets. Prior to age seven, children want to believe in magic. An exclusively English-speaking plaything might engage your child in conversation. You provide the voice and movement, wiggling the head while “it” speaks, leaning its ear towards the child when an answer is expected. If the child answers in another language, adapt his answer to English without comment or hesitation.

    Making up stories with children is equally beneficial: “Who is this story about?”, “What do you think happened next?”. Although the child’s English may not be perfect, continue to solicit some interaction. If you lack confidence storytelling, begin with well-known stories and modify them in a manner the child will appreciate: “Goldilocks (an astronaut) and the 3 Space Aliens”, or “Grizzlylocks and the 3 Alligators”. Make up stories using toys or figurines as characters, letting the little characters speak in English as you play.

    Stimulating interlocutors encourage speaking and listening. A native-speaking visitor or a trip to the target language country is a good way to incite a child to speak in that language. Although they may revert to your home country’s language upon return, the cumulative experience is profitable. If you are able to provide your children with a home-town or camp that they can return to regularly and feel a part of, then you will develop strong motivation and a comfortable environment in which they will want to speak. A significant element in this environment would be cousins or neighbors with similar interests or ages. Inquire about available local activities through school or recreation departments, public libraries, community centers (YMCA, JCC). Consider day camps or summertime activities in schools or churches, usually reasonably priced. These provide opportunities to communicate with other youngsters as partners.  Peer contact becomes increasingly important as your child matures socially.  Put your child in a milieu where he or she may learn terms you have not used through ignorance or discretion.

    Summer jobs can provide a doubly enriching experience for older children. Start looking early and use any network contact to discover possibilities. Some contacts may require several years of follow-up before they occur. Don’t expect a child to earn enough to pay for his trip or lodging!  A summer experience that includes filing and photocopying, stocking shelves, serving French fries or weeding gardens can provide and extremely valuable experience away from home. Teen educational programs may exist in many domains such as conservation and the arts. More and more universities admit teens through a non-degree, pre-college, on-campus summer program.  As children grow and develop autonomy, they can be encouraged to use their language skills away from their family environment.

    Reading to our children is a pleasure, especially when the literature grows up along with the children. Reading provides a variety of linguistic models. One of the best ways to encourage bilingualism and biculturalism is to continue reading to our children, although they are able to read on their own.  The level at which children read usually lags behind their comprehension level. If you don't read to them, your children may miss books and articles that are too difficult for them to read but are appropriate subject matter for their age or interest. The linguistic advantages of reading aloud to children include inculcating a larger vocabulary, developing familiarity with complex phrasing, and pronunciation (phonemic as well as graphic relationships). There are cultural and educational benefits as well; giving our children the historical or literary background they might miss by not being in a native school environment. The authors and heroes of each parent provide a subtle but important cultural education to their children.  Children who won’t sit while you read a book to them may listen while you read a short newspaper article, or directions to assembling a model airplane.

    One of the single most important factors in developing bi-literacy is the learner’s desire to read. Observing family members reading and having appealing materials on hand stimulates reading. If the child enjoys reading in any language he/she will enjoy reading in other languages as well. If the child is speaking fluently, the transition from reading in one language to reading in the second language usually occurs quite naturally and easily. Obviously, the transition is easier when the graphic displays (letters and alphabets) are more similar and familiar.

    When new symbols must be assimilated, you will want to attempt to present them very early.   One way to introduce symbols from another alphabet is to have children read family member names.  Names hold high emotional levels, and children will probably learn those symbols integrated in names of people they love rapidly.  Have your child distribute packages with familiar names on the gift tags or Valentines in envelopes that have names printed on the front.  Put place markers or decorated napkin holders on the dinner table:  once certain symbols have been integrated vary the names and replace them with titles, (mother, Mrs. Smith, the birthday boy).  From familiar family and friend names, you can progress to reading other short vocabulary items in the unfamiliar code, such as street signs or favorite food items to introduce a more complete alphabet.

    Nearly 200 common English words can be mastered by “sight”. These frequently encountered words are not easily “sounded-out”.  This may also be the case in your other or target language.  Introducing and reinforcing some of the sight words in tiny doses can be fun, and should be done as soon as the child shows interest in learning to read. Keep a white board in the kitchen, and use it to draw or jot notes and messages to each other. When sitting together at the computer, type a letter or story while the child dictates. While he scans the screen, he’ll discover correct spelling without being interrogated. Plaster the walls with posters, bumper stickers, silly greeting cards or cartoons with simple short captions. Leave notes, and motivate your children to read them. (“Your allowance has been raised” will get more attention than “Make your bed” despite the increased complexity). You can be sure that they will want to read the tag on the large gift-wrapped box marked “To my favorite, oldest son” or the note “Eat this candy for snack”. Hide notes in incongruous places (“Smile my pretty girl” on the bathroom mirror, “good night my love” under the pillow). Progress from simple terms, such as “pick up/put away,” to “straighten up.” Vary terms from “Mom” to “Mother” or “the lady who cooks your dinner”. Use familiar vocabulary which has already been introduced and reinforced verbally (orally) well before you write it in a note.  If you present candy bar or cookie packet labels in the target language, children may recognize the colors and designs on the package while you point out the words “Oreo”, later they can read the word “Oreo” on the grocery list you have printed for them. You may need to distinguish vocabulary distinctions created by accent and pronunciation marks. Remember vocabulary can be both passive (words understood when read or heard) and active (words used in regular, daily communication).

    Incite your children to decipher the language around them. Point out all the languages on cereal packages or game instructions. While baking, ask them to help you by reading one line of the recipe. Subscribe to magazines about a favorite hobby, let them begin by reading short image captions or titles and later, move on to articles. Advertisements may provide opportunities to explain embedded contextual clues. Silliness like “Knock knock” jokes can be a fun way to create word plays that highlight significant vocabulary or homonymic distinctions. Comics (Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes) and parody (Mad, the Capitol Steps,) provide interesting reading, but be aware that humor is often sophisticated and culturally bound, making it difficult to explain.

    While reading to children, encourage their participation by asking them to read aloud and to comment on the text. For example, ask them to read a title, illustration caption or a short simple dialogue, where each of you reads one character’s role. Ask them which political candidate they would support.  Emphasize the emotions – whining, joy, or anger expressed by the characters. Ensure the reading level is not too difficult. Small doses will go a long way. The pleasure principle applies here - try reading up to a suspenseful moment and then, leaving the book accessible - the child might read on ahead (even after you have said to turn out the light!).

    Developing writing goes hand in hand with reading, speaking and listening. The more children read, the more exposure they have to the written word, and to the written language register.

    Ask a child to copy a recipe or write the shopping list (he/she can add “candy”). Keep a family agenda where your child can note down play dates. Our children decorated calendars as gifts for their grandparents.  (At first you’ll print the days of the weeks and months, and at some point he/she can fill in the blanks him/herself). Ask your child to print and decorate menu cards for a special meal, or birthday invitations. Make valentines together. As children get older, some adaptation is necessary. Adding a line or two at the bottom of your letter to Grandma is easier than being faced with producing an entire page (and they often are incited to read the entire letter). Keep a variety of diaries with pictures and short texts about vacations, baby and birthday souvenir books.

    As mentioned earlier concerning speaking ability, be discreet when correcting their writing, because children can get frustrated easily. Without condoning errors, try to judge how much correction your child can accept and how much he or she can learn. This is especially prickly with second or third children who might not “measure up” to an older sibling’s production. Find individual occasions for praise: the funny story teller, the optimist, the sentimental one. Try to focus on a few, significant errors and let the others slip past to be corrected at a later date. The amount of correction (learning) anyone can digest at a single setting is limited. This is easy to say and harder to put into practice. Older children can integrate spelling quickly when their motivation is high and their intellectual capacities are further developed.  New computer technology provides spelling, grammar and vocabulary solutions.   It’s not worth frustrating our children too early with the tortuous English grapho-phonemic relations which can be integrated later on as it becomes necessary.

    Borrow or build a library of games such as Hangman, Scrabble, Boggle, MAD LIBS, crossword puzzles, or the many commercially available computer games to encourage writing. Make comments about your language while they are learning other languages (blue, bleu, blau). A lesson on homonyms in another language can spark discussion about some English examples (too/to/two; I “hear” with my ear, “here” and there). Writing is the most complicated of the communication skills for most people, so we shouldn’t be astonished that it is the hardest to encourage and develop in our children. It is, like reading, a transferable skill that can be rationally approached as the child grows older and accepts the need for accomplishment. Certainly, languages with more similar elements are easier to transfer. Discrepancies between children’s spoken and written ability are easier to bridge and rectify as they grow older.  The teen-ager’s desire to produce appropriate language for a situation must be recognized. Communication produced within specialized contexts (slang, Instant Messaging, term papers, thank you notes to grandparents, letters of motivation) will not follow the same rules.

    As parents we can encourage our children to further develop their language skills. Each time they desire to speak, read or write we can help them, by guiding them and praising their results. Enjoy communicating with your children and keep the experience pleasurable for them. As our children mature the world is growing smaller.  With our support they will be more able to grasp intellectually and improve the necessary skills towards becoming multi-lingual and multi-cultural adults able to fill necessary functions in the global future.

    Educator and linguist before becoming a bicultural mom, Janine Brimbal has taught communication, language and reading skills to a wide variety of populations including children, adults, foreign speakers, and  persons with disabilities. She has provided training for teachers, care givers and librarians and has published articles about using theatre for language development.

    (Note: although English is used as the reference, most of the article can be applied to other languages with minor adaptations.)

    Article excerpted and adapted from the AAWE Guide to Education in France, 7th Edition (Paris, 2006).


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