"今天过的怎么样" ("How was your day?"), asks Mom in Mandarin.
"Good! We had pizza lunch at school today!" says Ben.
"请你说中文!" ("Please speak Mandarin!"), Mom chides.
In how many households does this scene play out every single day in Canada? More than you might think. Whether it's Mandarin, Spanish or Farsi, the wall that separates generations, in terms of language, can seem hard to breach. Parents want their kids to retain their heritage language, among other things, and the kids just want to fit in and speak English, like their peers do.
How can parents bridge the divide and give their kids the best of both worlds? Here are five ways that I have found very helpful from my experience both as a parent trying to raise a bilingual child and the founder of a Mandarin school in Toronto.
The strongest and most long-lasting habits are best acquired when kids are young. They're less likely to fight you on them and more likely to embrace the "fun" in learning. In addition, there is the fact that kids are mini-sponges. They can learn and process another language far more easily than older children or adults do — perhaps because they're less inclined to be self-conscious about making errors, or perhaps they are simply hardwired to learn more. Instead of getting caught up in the nuances and grammar of language, as adults are more prone to do, children thrive with a simple understanding of words, and can evolve from there into fluency.
Kids are also particularly good at adapting to routines if they are applied consistently. Leverage this ability and set aside a specific family activity to be conducted in the language of choice. For example, dinner time at my house is Mandarin time. I've been doing that with my daughter from day one and it's worked really well! She actually reminds me when I forget to speak in Mandarin. Once it becomes a routine, kids will be learning without thinking.
If you tie the learning to interests a child already has, they're more likely to adapt and even embrace it.
Keep it fun
Play-based learning isn't a new concept: kindergarten classes have been embracing it for some time now. The same applies to learning a new language. If you tie the learning to interests a child already has, they're more likely to adapt and even embrace it. For example, if your child is tech-focused, you can leverage games and activities on a tablet in the language you want them to learn. Watching shows/movies or listening to music in that language is also a great way to pick up nuances and other spoken variations. If they've already seen the movie or show in English, they'll know what's going on, so the language will intrinsically make sense. For example, popular cartoons such as "Peppa Pig" and "Paw Patrol" are both available in Mandarin on YouTube.
There is one provision here: make sure that the translations are of a high quality, with clear, simple language. "Frozen" is a good example of a well-translated movie that many kids can relate to, including singing their favourite songs like "Let It Go!" in the heritage language. Matching the language with a popular movie that the kids all love is also a good way to put the language on equal footing with English, which is important if you want your kids to keep at it.
Engage the grandparents
Learning a heritage language is far more effective if kids are immersed in it as much as possible. Spending time with grandparents who speak the language, and even prefer it, is a good way to get that immersion. The grandparents are more likely to be consistent about the use of the heritage language, whether by habit or comfort, and that consistency with the kids can make all the difference.
Beyond language, speaking with grandparents in their mother tongue helps kids learn more about the cultural identity that goes with it. Attending festivals or events, reading books and other materials from their country and absorbing more about the customs and traditions are all wonderful ways to support the language learning. However, one common complaint that I often get from parents is that their parents always end up speaking English to the children instead of using their heritage language. The easy answer to this is that parents also need to play their part in fostering the interest in learning the heritage language in their children. It can't just be the grandparents' responsibility.
It will be a lot easier to do the latter if the children already have an interest in learning the language.
I know you were probably hoping for a magical solution to get your parents to use their few hours a week/month with your children to teach them your heritage language, but there isn't one. Grandparents are suckers for wanting to bond with their grandchildren and will do anything it takes. If they need to choose between being able to communicate and build a deeper relationship and teaching their heritage language, the choice is pretty simple. It will be a lot easier to do the latter if the children already have an interest in learning the language.
For example, my daughter always takes her Mandarin binder from class with her to visit my parents. It's their weekly activity to review together. She gets checkmarks on her review chart towards stickers and little prizes, and my parents get a great bonding opportunity with their granddaughter. It's definitely win-win.
Peers are important, too
Has your child ever wanted to do something just because their friends are? Of course they have! As children age, the opinions and importance attributed to their peers begins to take over in their thinking. It's a natural evolution, but can put a wrench in learning a heritage language if your child's peer group doesn't include other kids who are also participating. Moreover, it's hard for kids to make lasting friendships with children they see once a week at their language classes. No child wants to be isolated because of language, and the natural tendency to assimilate is strong.
Perhaps your child's best friend has an interest in learning a language and could join them. Another option is to set up a playgroup or ongoing playdates with other children who are also learning your language. Are you going to dinner at a restaurant that serves food from your country? Take your child's best friend along! There is a pride that develops when kids share their heritage with others in a meaningful way, and that pride will open the door to them embracing their language and culture.
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Keep learning within their community
Kids often speak their heritage language while still in the preschool years, but that ability begins to fade as they enter the formal school system. It's not surprising that kids want to fit in with their peer group, identifying with English rather than their own heritage language. Unfortunately, public schools in Canada (Alberta being a notable exception) tend to stick the official languages of English and French, and the reality is that kids are more likely to embrace their heritage language if it is a part of their everyday life, instead of at best, an annoying diversion every weekend or, at worst, a burden.
Engaging kids in their heritage language is up to every parent. Ideally, the methods are multi-pronged, so as to not be limited to just class once a week. A stronger immersion through family, friends, cultural events and formal learning can help you and your child leap the language divide together. After all, our world is all constructed from language. What greater gift is there to our children than access to as many worlds as possible?
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