Episode 60: Q&A – How can I make language learning more fun for school age children?

Episode 60


On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I provide a listener who is working on Japanese with her niece and nephew make the experience more amusing and interesting for them.  I also give her some ideas on how to incorporate a natural progression for their language acquisition process.

 Episode #60- Transcript

Hello and welcome to another Question and Answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast!

We have another great question for today’s episode.  But before we jump into the question I wanted to share with you some exiting news!  I have been working on an eBook to help you on your multilingual journey.  This book provides all the essentials to help you navigate your language journey and it is based on many of the concerns, questions and information you have requested since the start of the podcast.

The eBook will focus on the early years so primarily birth to five years old but many of the concepts discussed throughout the book can be applied to older children as well.  I am still hard at work and the eBook is not quite ready but I wanted to share the exciting news and to let you know that this is coming down the pipeline!

Alright, let’s now get to our usual business and answer a question that came in via email.  This question is from Kou and it reads as follows:

Hello!  Thank you for your wonderful podcasts 🙂 I always learn something new.  Anyway, my problem is that my niece who is about 4 and my nephew who is 9 are reluctant to learn our family language, which is Japanese.  They already know English & Cantonese and maybe they think Japanese is too hard for them. I’m not trying to force them. Do you have any suggestions that would make it amusing for them to learn the heritage language? Thank you so much.

Thank you Kou for your question and for allowing me to share your question with the Bilingual Avenue community.

Let’s start off by discussing some very simple aspects of the language acquisition process.  Typically, when children are learning a language, understanding the language comes first, speaking comes next, then reading and then writing.  Keeping that in mind, how are you noticing their reluctance? Are they reluctant to speak Japanese to you?  If so, it may simply be because we are skipping over the first building block.  They need to understand more of what is being conveyed and ask of them before they can start producing sounds, words and sentences back to you in Japanese.

When we introduce a language from birth to children, it takes many months and for some even years of listening and understanding before oral production starts.  Learning a language at an older age is not all that different.  Your niece and nephew may very well want to engage with you in Japanese but may not have the vocabulary to do so and are showing some reluctance.

You may see this reluctance expressed through what seems like disinterest so let’s think of some ways that you can make the language process more amusing as you point out in your question.  You will want to focus primarily on creating activities or interactions with them that develop their comprehension of Japanese because as long as they are slowly understanding what you are saying to them their brains will be hard at work taking in all the rich input you are providing to them even if they are not speaking back to you.  You also want to make it fun for them of course.  We have to keep in mind that they are young and the more fun we make it for them the more responsive they will be to what you are trying to convey to them.

You may find episode 12 particularly helpful in this case.  Here I break down several ways in which you can motivate children to speak their heritage language when they prefer the community language.  You will get several ideas on how to increase the exposure to the language and how to create the need for using that language.  You can access that episode by heading over to bilingualavenue.com/episode 12.  Also on that page, you can find the transcript of exactly what I cover on the episode so that you can print it out and reference it as you needed it.

Now you do have a bit of a challenge with the age difference.  Your four year old niece may very well be attracted to very different things than what your nine year old nephew finds appealing.  Their learning styles may also likely very different.  So where can you find synergies that will work for both of them?

My suggestion here is to provide them with opportunities to experience Japanese culture and the Japanese language.  Do not look approach it from the perspective of “Ok, let’s sit down now it’s time for Japanese class.” Instead focus on experiences sot that they are really living the language.  These experiences will have a much more lasting impact.

So keeping the idea of experiences in mind, what are some cultural activities that your niece and nephew may find engaging? Is there a traditional Japanese dish that you can make together? Are there any crafts that they can make that can incorporate cultural elements? Can you teach them a dance that involves lots of body movement or expressive gestures that then you can leverage for vocabulary?

Are there any games you or other family members enjoy playing as children that allows for some infusion of vocabulary? A word of caution on games, try to stir away from those that require a lot of oral production in the early stages.  You don’t want to have a game where they have to express their feelings or describe something when they are starting out. Instead focus on games where you are doing a lot of modeling, and therefore a lot more of the talking, but where they can still participate and engage in small ways.

The last suggestion I would provide is that you work with your family members to explore some ways that you can leverage their help.  You mentioned that this is a heritage language for your family.  Perhaps do some brain storming together and you may find yourself with a few new tools to incorporate to your interactions.

As you keep exposing them to more Japanese, they will over time pick up more and more words and likely reduce their reluctance to learn it.  Once you can start engaging with them even in just simple conversations, you can add more depth to your interactions with them and those experiences we discussed earlier.
For now focus on experiences where will likely do a lot of the talking at first while providing context of what the words that you are using mean.  Keep those experiences fun and I can’t wait to hear how they receive these new quote on quote Japanese language sessions.

Also, don’t forget to check out episode 12, even if you have already listened to it before if you listen to it with the additional context I have provided today, it will likely spark your imagination for a few more activities that you can then implement with your niece and nephew.

Alright Koh, I hope you found the answer helpful. Thanks for reaching out and please keep me posted on how it goes.

For everyone else, I hope you also found the answer helpful.  If you want YOUR question answered on the podcast, just head on over to bilingualavenue.com/contact and send in your inquiry.

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


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