It's back to school for our bilingual learners (or start of school for some little ones) - and we have gotten so many questions about how best to support their continued bilingual learning! Here, we speak with bilingual speech therapy expert, mom, and friend - Grace (@speechtherapymom) - about your top back to school questions. As always, we love her ideas and hope they are helpful for you too!
Your top FAQ on Back to school for bilingual learners
I worked so hard on my minority language this summer. Now my kiddos are going back to school and I’m anxious about the English replacing the minority language! How should I be thinking about this?
I’m in school preparation mode and want to set up my home to be a more immersive bilingual environment. What should I do?
I would love for my kid(s) to learn a second language. And I keep hearing how parent participation is important, but I don’t speak it fluently (-or- my vocabulary is so basic, they will surpass me soon!). How can I support their bilingual learning?
FAQ 1: I am anxious about English replacing the minority language …
[Grace] I share the concern! I think the goal is to try to continue the minority language in the most seamless way, without making it seem like an inconvenience. For example …
Before school starts: Prepare
I would explicitly have a conversation with my kids about what to expect, so they’re not surprised or confused, where they show up to school saying “你好” (nǐ hǎo) and the rest of the kids say “hello” like in the book, Dreaming of Popo. I also suggest developing a joint-family-calendar … like a big visible one on the fridge, where as a family, you can plan out which days (or which parts of the day), you will use English and which you will use the minority language. For example - when we eat dinner, we always use the minority language. When we do bedtime reading, we always use the minority language.
When school starts: Tweak & Adapt
I would try to implement this “collective family schedule” consistently and tweak as new things come up. For example, if my daughter starts becoming frustrated, I might try to redo the calendar together with her, both as a bonding exercise and to give her autonomy and independence over how she wants to engage with it. I would also be conscious of always reminding her the motive behind the family calendar or using the minority language, so it still has relevance … it’s to play with Grandma / Grandpa … it’s to be Teacher’s helper for a classmate who just moved to the US … it’s to be able to order her favorite foods independently next time at the restaurant, etc.
Stepping back, I would also try to manage my own expectations … when she starts school, she will of course pick up English and flourish there. So it is natural that she might stall in her minority language development, and that’s okay - because bilingual learning is not one consistent straight line up. I would also try to remind myself to not be “disappointed” by how English is “trumping” the minority language or worried that English is “shutting down” the minority language … and instead, try to remember that I want her to BI-lingual - which means she has to know both languages. So if she comes home learning a concept in English first (vs. in the minority language), I would try to think about it as an opportunity to discuss that new concept - e.g. Baby Shark > Allows me to introduce the word 鲨鱼 (shā yú) in the minority language.
FAQ 2: I want to set up a more immersive bilingual environment …
[Grace] We are trying to set this up too! There are so many things that we can do, no matter our level of fluency. Here are some things we have tried …
- Posters: Put up bilingual posters, because they are visual prompts.
- Labels or Signs: You can label your house … what each room is, the place you brush your teeth. I know you all have a free “Home” Flashcard Printables Set, which I love and is perfect for this! It’s one very quick thing you can do to support a bilingual space.
- Calendar: In a similar vein, it might be nice to have a visual calendar of their day - and while they don’t have to write the whole activity in the minority language, perhaps they can write one word associated with each activity. For example, “play” (玩 wán) for playground outdoor time or “book” (书 shū) for reading time or “pen / pencil” (笔 bǐ) for drawing time.
- Intentional toy or book placement: Kids still gravitate towards things that they can reach. So I try to observe where she likes to spend her time and where she pulls things from. For example, I noticed that before bedtime, she would like to go into our room and pull things from the bedside table, because that was the only shelf short enough for her to reach. So I started putting 2 Habbi Habbi books there - whichever ones / topics I wanted to her to engage with - so she could pull them herself.
- People (or decor) prompts: Kids associate different people with different languages. We have one photo book from my last family trip to Taiwan of all our family, and every time my little one sees that book, it prompts her to speak the minority language, because she associates all those people and experiences with it. While it doesn’t have to be a photo book, you can put pictures of people or decor that signal and prompt your child, even if the prompt is not an explicit word.
All of these are things that can be done by parents, regardless of fluency. Labelling the environment or schedule can be done by hand (with the help of google translate) or you can use pre-made labels / flashcards / signs - like the free Printables you (Habbi Habbi) have available. I find having visual labels up is nice, because it’s a visual cue, and you don’t have to say “I don’t know” or “I forgot.”
FAQ 3: I want to participate and support but am not bilingual myself …
[Grace] That’s ok! Sometimes I think we parents get anxious about the accent or grammatical correctness, but what our kids see from our attempts is that - “This is important.” So I think there is *so* much value for all parents - regardless of level of fluency - to engage, even if we make mistakes!
Some ways parents can get started:
- Set up a visual environment: All the tips listed in the last question about labelling the home or intentionally setting up bilingual resources in areas they can reach, can be done by parents of all fluency. The visual cues are helpful as a prompt.
- Choose a consistent time: Pick a consistent time - that enables kids to have exposure, so you can build a habit. It can be as short as five minutes but just needs to be consistent. It could be the 5 minutes in the car between pick-ups … or listening to audiobooks during bathtime … or picking a bilingual book for bedtime reading.
- Leverage other 3rd party resources: Even if a parent doesn’t speak fluently, there are many tools out there that can help provide exposure … from youtube videos that introduce basic vocabulary … to virtual storytimes or audiobooks … to favorite Netflix cartoons played in different languages … to audio-enhanced books like Habbi Habbi and the Reading Wand!
- Show interest in the culture: Identify areas of interest you (as the parent) are also interested in about the culture. Whether it’s a favorite food, restaurant, or celebration … if you’re curious and want to learn, it will show and transfer to them. It will also provide an opportunity for discussion about not just the language - but also the culture, which provides context to the language. If we can nurture that curiosity in our kids, they will find their own ways to learn.
- Identify people of that minority language whom you can spend time with: Kids are smart; they know when someone is an English speaker but just speaks the minority language occasionally, so they may choose to only speak English to that person. (A lot of us parents may fall into this camp, because they know we speak English more!) Try to find people in your life whom your child will only want to speak the minority language with. It could be a family member, caretaker, family in the community, penpal, or other. Consciously find time to integrate them in your lives - even if it’s just virtual!