Part 2: Tips for Language Learning
As the proverb goes “it takes a village to raise a child” and it takes more than one parent to raise a bilingual child. Raising children bilingual is no easy feat so don’t go it alone.
In this part I will share with you all my Aps for language learning that I have picked up along the way from my own bilingual upbringing, learning two additional foreign languages, teaching foreign languages, being a mother to bilingual children and interacAng with other bilingual parents and learning from their experiences. The important thing to remember is that there is no right and wrong way, so pick and choose what works for you and disregard anything that is too hard or overwhelms you or your children. What is important is that you and your children are enjoying your journey and it feels effortless.
1. AT HOME WITH PARALLEL LANGUAGE LEARNING
Texts – Dual language books
The parallel learning method worked for me when I was studying languages. At university I was introduced to parallel texts. These are books that have the same text in two languages. I found a wonderful online Greek bookshop called Diavazo Greek Books. Look for something similar in your language. While you may find it hard to get hold of dual language books there are lots of popular book Atles that are translated into other languages. My children love the Julia Donaldson series so they have a bookshelf of her books in English and in Greek. At bedAme, they are allowed two books – one in English and the same book in Greek. This way they know the meaning of the book so when I come to reading the Greek one their clever liRle brains are scanning the words for parallels.
Lyrical language learning – Dual language songs
The same applies to songs. When learning French I relied on Celine Dion songs because they were bilingual. The brain loves lyrical language learning. To this day, I remember vocabulary from those songs and it is still my go-to for the subjuncAve (the bane of French language students’ lives). The good news for parents is that most popular nursery rhymes are available in mulAple languages thanks to YouTube. We sing “Incy Whincy spider” and “Η μικρή αράχνη”. We have recently moved on to “La peAte araignée”. SomeAmes the children sing one version and replace the right word in the right place which for me is a true indication of vocabulary acquisition.
Using the same parallel language method, I have discovered that Peppa Pig is available in over 20 languages. As parents we all feel guilty about screentime but if it's educational we do feel better about it. So why not use your children’s screentime as an opportunity to teach them a language. See if their favourite TV show is available in your language. For older kids, add subtitles so they are reading the translation or the foreign language. You may think they are not taking notice but the brain is more complex than we give it credit for and it is processing information in the background all the time.
2. SUPPORT NETWORK
Make friends through playgroups With a little research you may be able to find a bilingual playgroup or classes in your area. So this is where I came unstuck. I couldn’t find what I was looking for in my area. That was when I founded Greeklish Kids. A bilingual playgroup where parents with a diverse background of bilingual journeys get together while the children learn and play. We share Aps and ideas, discuss our wins and our epic fails, but we don’t preach.
We understand that what works for one family may not be ideal for another. From this I have arranged a number of playdates with other Greek parents because guess what? There are other parents out there who are also looking for someone who needs support in the bilingual journey.
Family and friends
If your family and friends speak the language you are trying to teach, get them to help you. One person cannot do it alone, so remind them this. Children learn better from cool uncles and aunAes than their own parents, as we know. If they slip into English, just gently nudge them and tell them that you really appreciate their support in developing your child’s horizons. And they don’t even have to speak the language. Non-native speakers can learn too. My husband does not speak Greek, but as I teach the children he is learning too. He asks the children “what does Mummy call it” or “how do we say it in Greek?”. He plays games with the children where he says it in English and they repeat it in Greek.
For all its sins, social media can be a great tool for bilingual parents. Join a network of ex-pats, such as Greek parents in Gloucestershire, Spanish mums in London etc. Follow other bilingual parents on social media and follow their journey, this is what I did and it has helped and inspired me. In turn, during lockdown I started posting lockdown bilingual ideas and activities for kids on Instagram @greeklishkids. So many people now write to me thanking me for giving them inspiraAon during what was a very difficult pandemic for us all.
3. CALLING IN THE EXPERTS
I explained how I found it hard raising bilingual children and I am speaking from the position of a fully bilingual, who speaks four languages and teaches languages. So it’s ok to say this is hard and it’s time to get some expert help.
Here is my list of services that you might consider in support of your bilingual journey with your children:
EXTRA CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES: Toddler Playgrounds, Afterschool Clubs, Tutoring & Summer Camps
You take your children to Gymnastics, Football academies, Maths clubs, Dance classes, Science camps etc. You develop their physical, cerebral but what about their language? Choose a class that you know your children will enjoy. If your child spends their Saturday at a school that they do not enjoy they will resent you and the language, so make sure whatever you choose they enjoy it and have plenty of opportunities to make friends.
At Greeklish Kids we offer toddler classes and playgroups, summer camps and private tutoring. Our focus is on language learning being fun. The children don’t do grammar drills or vocabulary sheets. They play, sing and go out to the woods, they experiment with science and cooking, they learn geography and culture, they participate in sports, messy play, and arts and crafts activities. I create all lessons plans to include vocabulary acquisition and grammar exercises but shhh don’t tell the children this, it’s a secret 😉
Nannies & Babysitters
Through social media I also met Elli, a Greek mum who identified a need and founded her own Greek nanny service in London. Look for something similar in your area and if it doesn’t exist maybe there’s a gap in the market for you to start one!
By now you should have a comprehensive list of ideas of how you might start your bilingual journey. Pick and choose what works for you. Try one method, if it doesn’t work drop it and try another. Get help from others in the same situation as you and know when to call in the experts. Make it fun, easy and joy to learn a language.
WHEN IS IT TOO LATE, AND WHEN TO GIVE UP
It’s never too late. You will hear that, between the ages 0-3 is the best time to learn a language. And it is. But it is relative. I learned to speak Russian at university in my 20s. It was harder than learning French at 12 but easier than when I tried to learn Arabic at 30.
Even if you try and give up, you have already expanded the breadth of your child’s mind to comprehend that there are other languages parallel to their own. Even if they never speak your mother tongue, you have given them an invaluable skill and set them up for their future endeavours such as learning a foreign language, problem-solving and communication empathy. So well done you. And remember you can always pick it up again when the time is right at a pace to suit your family.
*Raising children bilingual is hard. You are doing a great job!
*We all use language in different ways so tailor your bilingual journey to your goal.
*Choose how much of the language you want to expose them to, while retaining your own
*Don’t go it alone!
*Call in all the help you can: grandparents, nannies, YouTube, playgroups, other parents.
*It’s never too late to start. Don’t stress yourself and don’t let others stress you and know that you cannot fail.
*If you struggle, stop, start again later.
*There is no right or wrong way and even if you discover that it is not for you, you have already given your child a wonderful gift.
*Well done you!
Elizabeth Levendeli is a language teacher and mum of two bilingual children. She is the founder of Greeklish Kids which is a Greek language club providing opportunities for Greek language learning through play and social interactions. Greeklish Kids offers a range of services including todder and playgroups, private tutoring and summer camps.