Episode 14 – Q&A – How can I support my child if I do not speak the language(s) used by the school?

Episode 14



Episode #14 Transcript

Hey there!  Welcome to another Question & Answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast.  This is the fourth Q&A episode and I hope you are finding the information helpful.  Remember you can ask a question too, just leave me an audio message on the Bilingual Avenue contact page or simply send me an email.

This week’s question was sent via email and it reads:

Question: My child attends a dual immersion school but I do not speak one of the languages used in the school.  What are some ways that I can support my child’s learning needs despite my limited knowledge of the language?

This is an excellent question because as the benefits of multilingualism are spreading, more and more parents are looking for ways to expose their children to another language.  If you are not multilingual yourself, an excellent way to create that exposure is through language schools.

If you want to know more about what makes a good language program, you’ll want to check out Episode 6 where I interview Dr. Ingrid Piller from Macquarie University in Australia because she breaks down one by one the hallmarks of a good language program.   So that can serve as a guide for you when evaluating a particular school.

The problem, however, is that for some parents that don’t speak the target language of the school, they can find it difficult to support the language needs of their children.  So what can they do?  Well I am going to break this question into three different categories.

You will want to focus on #1 Promoting Literacy Skills; #2 Increasing Exposure and #3 Staying connected with your school.

So let’s start with promoting literacy skills. 

Even if you don’t speak one of the languages in your school, you can still help your child gain literacy concepts that can be transferred from one language to the next.  That isn’t going to be the case for all literacy skills but let me walk you through the ones that fall under this category so that you can focus on those at home.  You can choose from this list what you want to work on based on the age of your child and then change your emphasis as your child gets older.

So let’s walk through that list –

Now I am going to warn you, some of these may feel a little technical but I am going to do my best to break down the information because I really want to give parents as many tools as possible.  But, if you listen to anything today that you want a little bit more clarity, just send me an email and I would be glad to expand on it.

The first one is awareness of the alphabet. English, Hebrew, Greek, Thai are examples of what we call alphabetic languages meaning that they are languages that use a specific set of marks to compose words.  The other type of language would be ideographic which uses characters.   So from an early age, you can still create an appreciation for the alphabet.  Readers can understand that marks on a page are symbols that create a sound.  They can understand that letters have names and that they have sounds and that together they can make up words.  So even if you don’t speak the language you can still create an appreciation by working on an alphabet in your language.

Now the challenge of course is that different languages have different names and sound for letters which is why I think an alphabet, like the one we learned about on episode 11 from Úna McCarthy-Fakhry , that uses the same objects despite the language you are working on can be helpful.  It just simplifies things.  But either way, that appreciation is an important literacy skills that then becomes a foundation for so much more!

The second skills you can work is the concept that words on a page mean something.  Children can start understanding this from a really early age and even though it seems really basic for us as adults, there is a lot value in this skill.  It’s an important building block for literacy.  You can build on this skill by asking basic comprehension question about a story you may be reading.  Read the sentence on the page and then ask a question about it may be using the pictures in the book.  Your line of questioning can change depending on the age of the child.

Another skills you can work is the attitude your children have towards reading and writing.  Children who have a love for reading and writing in one language can then transfer those attitudes towards other languages.  Now one thing you can do is make sure you have plenty of reading material in the other language.  This way you can always encourage your child to read to you.  And play it up, let them know you are excited for them to read to you.

You can also leverage audio books.  I am a big fan of audio of course and I can tell you that the listening station was a huge hit in my classroom. You can listen to books either in the language you share with your child or purchase books in the second language so that your child has a little more exposure.  It can still be a great bonding activity.

Now the same goes for writing.  Some children love to write others not so much.  Try to develop a positive attitude towards writing however you can.  Encourage your child to write about things they enjoy doing because this will ultimately help their writing in any future languages they acquire.

Consider making a book together.  You can get a few magazines and cut out the pictures.  If your kids really enjoy crafts, then get really creative on making your books.  You can then have your child either make up a story using the pictures or you can simply have them describe each of the pictures and make a compilation.

Now if you really want to kick it up a notch, you can make an interactive book.  This was an amazing idea I came across at Fluentfamily.com. Terri, the blogger behind Fluent Family uses a site called Simplebooklet.com.  She picks the topic of the story she wants to write about and then using Simplebooklet she adds texts, pictures to each page.  The result is a personalized booklet that can be viewed on any device yet as Terri points out the fun part is that it is interactive.  Your kids can click on an icon causing the book to turn, and then you can record audio that can go along with each page.  You can either create a book in the language you share or have your child write and then record themselves and again read it to you.

Alright a fourth skill is that of higher level thinking.  Higher level thinking is a skill that can be taught in any language.  On a future episode, I am going to be walking you through my favorite reading comprehension strategies.  But for now, I will say that you can promote higher level thinking and enhance reading comprehension by asking your child questions about the story you are reading, asking them to summarize the story, encourage them to make connections with the story and their surroundings, etc.  Cultivate your children’s curiosity about the world around them.  Use your mother tongue to encourage them to ask questions, describe things they observe and learn.  It doesn’t matter what language you are doing it in, their brains will be hard at work and gaining valuable skills.

Another skill is content knowledge which is just a really fancy of way of saying information that you are trying to teach.  So if you take the time for example to teach your child the water cycle, once they grasp that information, they can transfer that knowledge from one language to the other.  So don’t underestimate the power of just enhancing your child’s comprehension of different concepts.

And then the last skill depending on which language your child is learning print direction, which is the direction in which we write, can be very important. Let’s say that your child is learning English and Spanish, even if they are not quite writing yet but they can write some letters you can practice writing them from left to right since the print direction is the same for both of these languages. Again seems basic, but a great start for writing.  If you are learning Arabic and French, languages that have different print direction, I wouldn’t worry about this just yet.

Now to be fair there are going to be some skills that need to be taught explicitly in the language that you are going to be using them in.  For example grammar, actual vocabulary, the cultural context for a specific piece of literature, those will have to come from the school or other sources.  So try to worry less about those skills.  You still have plenty of other things to work on based on the list we just covered.

Alright so let’s move on to our second big category and that is increasing exposure.

I talked about exposure in episode 12 so I am not going to spend a whole time on it for this episode.  If you haven’t listened to episode 12, check it out for some ideas.  What I do want to expand on is how you may be able to provide exposure if that exposure cannot come directly from you.

On episode 13, Liza Sanchez shared that even though her daughter is learning Mandarin at school she doesn’t have many opportunities to practice it outside of an academic environment and that is somewhat limiting her abilities in that language.  So as parents, we will want to think of ways to find that exposure outside of the classroom.

So how can you do that?

Make sure you have plenty of resources around the house in the target language.  Depending on what your child likes best have DVDs, computer games, language apps geared toward children in addition of course to books!  There are a lot of good resources out there right now.  An app that I love as an adult but is also very kid friendly is Duolingo.  If you haven’t tried, you should!  You can work on six different languages, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German and Italian.

I call this one app in particular because you can “battle” with other players so you could take a few lessons yourself (I promise you they are simple) and then have your child challenge you.  Could be fun depending on the age of your child.

You could also hire a tutor to help add more exposure at home.  As I have said before, make sure that your children are having home.  The tutor doesn’t have to be on other side of the table lecturing your child.  Instead, you can pick up some art supplies and have them work on a craft together for example.  They can make a meal together.  They can learn some songs all in the target language.  You know what works best.

Other parents have also had great success with au pairs so that may be an option as well to increase exposure.  If you are not familiar with au pairs, they are generally young adults from another country who typically provide in-home childcare services.  There are some variations but that typically tends to be the case. Au pairs can be another way for you to add exposure by having a person in the home who is a native speaker of the language.

On episode 12 we talked about structure play dates and I think they can work in this situation as well.  Find other parents in your children’s class that would be open to getting together and organize an activity.  Just like I mentioned before, if you just let them play they are probably just going to speak the community language so be very intentional about your get together and make it well known that you are going to be playing in the target language.  It is going to be harder because you don’t speak the language and your kids obviously know that but you can find ways to incentivize them to still use the language.

This brings us to the last category and that is staying connected with your school.

If you have time, volunteering in your child’s classroom can be very beneficial.  You can get a sense for how the languages are managed and how the teachers and the students are going on about the day.  You may find that there are some routines that you can incorporate at home.

Keep an open line of communication with your child’s teacher.  They may have some ideas as well to inspire your journey at home.

If you do end up working with a tutor, ask your child’s teacher if there are specific areas that your child could use some help.

You can also look for opportunities to meet other parents in the same situation as yours.  Not only will they help you with the structured play dates I mentioned previously but you may also get tips of what’s working for them.

So again to wrap up you want to focus on #1 Promoting Literacy Skills, #2 Increasing Exposure, #3 Staying connected with your school.

Now for some inspiration, I will tell you there are plenty of parents in these situation.  In fact, through Bilingual Avenue I’ve come across several parents that are learning new languages along with their children.  I mentioned Terri earlier from Fluentfamily.com and she is learning German with her family.  And I’ve also met Nick Jaworksi you can find his blog on Chicagonow.com, the title of the blog is “Where are we going Dad?” and he is learning Chinese with his daughter.  You’ll get to hear their language journey on future episodes.

Well I hope you find this episode useful.

Remember if you have a question, make sure to leave an audio message at bilingualavenue.com/contact and we’ll answer it on the podcast.

May you have fun travels on your language journey.  Hope to see you again on the avenue.


Comments 1

  1. Pingback: Monolingual parents of kids in dual language, you’ve got this | DC Language Immersion Project

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