5 Speaking Tips for Minority Language Parents

Raising my child in a multilingual home and working with tons of multilingual families over the years, I've seen what works and what doesn't.  If you are the only source of the language for your child, just speaking with them often won't work.  It might be more successful before they enter school, but oftentimes it still isn't.  Here are 5 tips for ensuring your children will be more confident and fluent in their minority language.

1)  Model the language, including questions and answers.  A lot of the time, I will see a child give an understandable, but incorrect answer.  As the minority language parent, you must correct this and have the child repeat it correctly.  There are numerous studies out there that say explicit language correction is not useful for children's language acquisition, but there is a deeper awareness needed here.  Children tend to learn language according to a set timeline.  For example, they will always learn negatives before progressive tenses.  No matter how much you push progressive tense, the children will not acquire it until after they've got negatives down.  But this is assuming they have extensive model language to draw on.  If, as the parent, you are the only speaker for the child, you are most likely always asking questions of the child rather than responding to them at a young age.  This means that they never hear the responses and, even if they were ready to acquire them, they're not getting the examples they need to build the language in their heads.  Additionally, language acquisition is very much dependent on extensive amounts of input.  Again, the community provides large amounts of input, but the minority language may only have you as the sole source.  This means that you need to speak and have your children speak as much as possible.  For these reasons, modeling and having children repeat the correct language is very important.

2)  Talk about many many different subjects.  I see the gap between children's English and their minority language grow so fast.  Once this starts to happen, it can be easy to lose the battle of your child talking in the minority language.  At school, they are learning about animals in the Arctic, the newest Disney movie from their friends, and skateboarding from their favorite TV show.  They are quickly acquiring massive amounts of vocabulary for all these different aspects of life.  At home, you're probably just talking about your everyday routines.  It's essential to expose your children to a wide variety of language through books, trips, media, and conversation so that they can also build their vocabulary in the minority language.  Otherwise, they'll become so comfortable with the majority language and so uncomfortable with the minority, that they'll stop using the minority language to communicate.

3)  Talk all the time.  Whatever you're doing, talk through it with your child.  Encourage their input when you can.  Similar to above, if you aren't always giving examples of language, your child will not have examples to build their own.  If you're cooking dinner, involve them in it.  If you're trying to fix your computer, talk through every action you take.  This will help your child gain vocabulary and structures for multiple situations.

4)  Expect only the minority language.  This is said time and again, but it's very important not to accept questions or responses in the majority language.  This is another behavior that I see which quickly widens the gap.  Perhaps a child is always answering in the negative with the majority language.  This is because they aren't comfortable using the structure in the minority.  The more this continues, the more natural it becomes.  This is why, as the minority language parent, you really need to ensure your child is using the minority language at all times with you.

5)  Build complexity.  Short answers can be the death of the minority language for a child.  While it's unnatural to always give longer responses (like, "Yes, I'd like a cracker" rather than "Yes, please"), it's important for them to be comfortable with complexity.  You really want to push your child to provide as much information as possible to help boost their ability.  Settling for short answers, as is very natural in language use, will often allow the majority language to become too dominant as they just don't have the exposure time needed at home once they start school in English all day.

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