It’s time to work on your mother tongue!

It’s time to work on your mother tongue!

Boost your child's language skills during this forced isolation

mother tongues

Due to COVID-19, schools are closed, children are home! Why not spend this time working on boosting your child’s language skills! Mother Tongues founder Dr Francesca La Morgia has prepared a series of daily blog posts with tips, resources and ideas for bilingual children that you can use easily from the comfort of your home! 

Sharing stories in your mother tongue

One of the main challenges to successful bilingualism is the lack of opportunities for the child to hear and use the language that is not spoken by the majority or in the school. Normal daily routines can be full of activities, and some parents struggle to find what I call “the special time” to be in conversation with the child, with no distraction, focused on a single activity in the parent’s language.

In some families this special time may be difficult to find if parents speak different languages and the common language is the country’s and the school language. For example, I am the only Italian speaker in my family, and our common language at home is English, so for me to create the special time focusing on a task with my children, with no interference from their dad, is to create a physical space where we focus on a game or a story and we only speak Italian. 

Sharing stories has been my favourite tool for bonding with my children through my native language, and this is why I think this is the best topic to start this series of blog posts. 

Stories are a strong communication tool

Storytelling and story reading are an incredible tool for promoting language and literacy but also for bonding through your language, and it is something that you can start from very early on. 

The language used in books is different from spoken language. Think about the last dinner time conversation you had with your child… and now compare that with the last story you read to them. The words, sentences and themes of books are very different from those of our dinner time conversations, and for a child to truly experience language it is important that both day-to-day language and more complex literacy are acquired. In the case of bilingual children who are developing the parents’ language in a context where there aren’t many opportunities to use it, parents tend to over-simplify the language they use with their child. This is why reading is so important. Children can hear a storybook many times, and learn to patiently listen. Hearing a story several times helps children to learn new sounds and to spontaneously learn the meaning of new words. 

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Sharing a book can also involve talking to the child about the images, asking questions, doing role-play. This is extremely important for bilingual children, because talking about the story in the parent’s language helps to develop speaking skills. The physical book is an extremely useful object that can be used in very creative ways. You can start by describing what you see in the picture, pointing and asking the child to help you to build the story. 

In some cases parents may struggle to find printed books in their mother tongue, and they may resort to tablets or mobile phones. WHO recommends to avoid or limit the time a child under 5 spends using screens, so I think that if you have the time and resources it is better to use images (you can print some from the web, you can use old photos or pick up images from a magazine) to tell your own story in your mother tongue. Sharing a story involves the parent taking an active role… yes, that means “doing voices”, acting sad or surprised… in general reacting and showing your own impression of the story. Children learn much more from personal interaction than from a story they watch for a few minutes on a mobile phone.

For older children this may take a different form. You might be able to co-write a story and read it to younger siblings, and you should ask them what kind of story they might like to hear (More ideas for older children will be in later posts!)

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

Sharing stories also means telling true stories or make up your own. Do you remember the last time you did something embarrassing? Do you have an old story from the town you grew up in? Do you remember a time when your own parents found themselves in a difficult situation and had to get out of trouble? How did they feel? 

Depending on the child’s age you will need to adapt your story. My grandparents used to tell me war-time stories, my mother used to tell me stories about when she had a motorbike and she used to also make up stories with characters who were children my age. Years later I still remember most of those stories, and I am very thankful for the time people spent in my home to tell me stories of all kinds.

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So, how are you going to achieve this? My view is that if there is a set routine or a set time in the day that you dedicate to storytelling, your child will quickly learn to adapt to this routine.

Parents who live outside of their country of origin may find it hard to source materials that suit the child’s age.

In Ireland you can borrow children’s books in many different languages, and they can be delivered to your local library (please note that libraries are currently closed until the end of March 2020). It is also worth asking your local embassy, cultural institute or library where to source books in your language.

More ideas please!

In contexts where it is hard to find a physical book, you can use one of these techinques:

Record a story (most smartphones have an audio-recording device) and make your own playlist of stories that your child can listen to (in bed, or while playing).

Get a family member or friend to record a story or read a short story. This might be a nice idea to give everyone a task during the times of “social isolation”. You and your child will appreciate this wonderful collection for years to come. Everyone has a story to tell, and these days technology allows us to easily send each other audio and video files.

– Llisten to audio-books or collection of stories on CD or MP3.

– Put on the radio in your language. Online radios are now available in hundreds of languages (including minority and endangered tribal languages!). Having the radio in the background is something easy that can create an environment of “immersion”. Some countries also have children’s radios, so browse the internet and you might discover something new and wonderful!

– Make finger puppets to bring your story to life (see video).
You can make finger puppets for yourself and for your child, and take turns in speaking, asking questions etc.
You can adapt this to the child’s age. Older children might be able to saw a full hand puppet.

Finally, a question I regularly get from parents is how to get the child to use the heritage language more. The answer varies from case to case, but to me one of the great secrets is using stories to get the conversation started. Telling a story the parent offers a model, showing the child how the language is spoken. The child learns to understand the language, the meaning of words etc, and needs to be given time to rehearse, make mistakes, try again and use the language as much as possible to become more and more comfortable with the language. This is why I advocate for regular storytelling in the heritage language. Given that this language usually has a smaller and smaller space in the child’s life as time goes on, using stories to discuss experiences, imagine scenario, talk about feelings is a great way to start the language journey together. 

In this video you can see a demonstration of interactive storytelling that you can model in your own language.

Buon divertimento!

Dr Francesca La Morgia
Founder of Mother Tongues

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