Using visuals to teach grammar to bilingual children

On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I answer a listener’s question and give her tips on how she can teach her son the gender rules associated with grammar.

The Question

Dear Marianna,

First I would like to thank you for a wonderful podcast that made a difference for me and my family. I really appreciate all your tips and angles on the topic of raising multilingual kids. The best episode that really gave me courage and convinced me that I am not doing anything wrong and the work will be rewarded was episode number 77 with Dr. Dussias.

Now little bit about my family. Our family lives in Sweden, I come from the Czech Republic and my husband from Germany. When we met, he was living in Sweden already for some time and I moved there to live with him. We spoke from the beginning in English together.

We have two kids. Our son is now 3 years old and I speak only Czech to him. My husband speaks almost only German with our son (he rarely speaks to him Swedish even in front of Swedes). He goes to Swedish daycare. I am still proud and totally surprised that he does speak Czech, German and Swedish fluent (he makes mistakes in grammar but even normal 3 year olds do, I guess his Czech is the best, than right after German and Swedish goes in the third place.

I am now struggling a bit with grammar and a strategy how to “correct” it. In Czech we have a male and female versions of past tense of verbs. So I noticed a while ago my son started to say the female version since he is modeling me. I let it be and say it correctly with the male version.  He is making that mistake more and more often.  Should I just keep on correcting him if I see that it works or let him figure it out himself?

We have also a little daughter that’s 10 months old and she hasn’t started to talk yet but I really hope that one day she will be like our son and it will work out for her as well.

I would like to give a tip to your listeners…There is a period of time where you as a parent doubt if you are doing this right and if you shouldn’t just have a monolingual child instead, if you do, than listen to the episode number 77 with Dr. Dussias, she gives you hope!!! Also there are so many other people who are raising multilingual kids!

So thanks again Marianna for your podcast and your work on this topic!

Warm regards from cold Sweden:)

The answer

Thank you so so much for taking the time to write me and for sharing how much the podcast has helped you.  It’s a motivator for me to keep things going!!! I will make sure to share your heartfelt message with Dr. Dussias.  She was thrilled to be on the show and was hoping that her information would be helpful for bilingual families. And I am glad that you know that you are absolutely not doing ANYTHING wrong!  You are giving your children a wonderful gift!

You can find Dr. Dussias’ episode at bilingualavenue.com/episode77 

Now let’s change gears to your question here regarding grammar.  This is really common and it takes different forms for different languages.  At home we have similar grammar issues with Spanish when a word changes grammatically because of gender.  For example, this pencil is mine would be “Este lapiz es mio” while saying this flower is mine would be “Esta flor es mia.”  You do have the added complexity that verbs are switching genders.

Whenever I have come around this struggle in my classroom and in my home with my kids, I leverage visuals to help me out!  They can be very powerful.  Visual tools allow you to talk about another individual so it’s not just you and your son.  It is going to be much harder for him to grasp the concept when it is just the two of you because he is going to model what you are saying and apply it to his grammatical structures.  This is essentially what is currently happening. 

Luckily for you, three year olds are primed to pick up grammar!  Their little brains are taking in everything that you are saying and then over time putting it to good use in their own sentences.  I can tell you from experience because I am living this at home right now with my daughter and it’s so much fun.  Often times she will put together a really complex grammatical structure together and I get so excited with what she has just said that I don’t even respond to her question.  It’s not until after I give her a hug and a kiss that I realize “Oh wait a minute, she’s telling me something she wants or she needs!”  Oh, multilingual parenting can be so fun!

Given what you have described in your email, here’s what I would suggest:

Modeling the correct grammar structure

Rather than “correcting” him, let’s find a way to model the correct grammar structure for him in a fun way.  He will likely over time figure it out but it can also be frustrating to be corrected all the time.  That’s the opposite of what we want to do right now.  Our children are already doing amazing work with two or more languages so if I can, I prefer to put in place strategies that model what we are looking for.  

Let me share a strategy that I think will work wonders in your case.

Make a photo book

Start by making a photo book!  You can do this in several ways, select some family pictures that have both male and females.  You could also use pictures from a magazine or even print out a few online.  You could even just use your phone or a tablet.  The idea here is that you are going to get images of men, women, boys and girls that are doing some sort of action.  Actions are important because we want to focus on verbs to demonstrate how they evolve in Czech.  Actions are also important  because a simple way to help our children expand their vocabulary is by combining actions and nouns.  Actions and nouns together are the foundation for two word combinations and ultimately sentences.

Leverage Visuals

Once you have your photo book together, sit down with your son and talk about what is happening in the picture.  This gives you an opportunity to use the verbs with the correct grammatical structure for female and male.  Now you are no longer focusing on just you and him but by leveraging the visual you can point out how the verb changes depending on the individual associated with the verb. Your son is three so he is likely able to understand when you point out how the verb changes if it is a male or female.  He may not at first but keep doing it over and over and eventually he will start noticing those subtleties.

Leverage Books

You can also leverage books and characters in a book when you are sharing a story together.  The reason why I like the photo books in this case a bit more than books (especially if you can use loved ones) is because children tend to enjoy talking about the people they know.  There’s something about that connection whether they are family and friends.  Of course, you can always combine both and keep modeling the same concepts with both photo albums and books.

Keep it fun!

Make sure that when you are sitting down to this that you keep it fun.  Talk about other things that you see in the picture so it does not feel so rigid.  Over time, I would encourage you to ask him to tell you what is happening in the picture as well.  Not only will this help you build his vocabulary but it will serve as a good gauge for you as to whether or not he is understanding the grammatical concepts you are sharing with him.  It is like an added bonus.

Those grammatical mistakes that our children make give us a window into what they know and what they have yet to learn so I commend you for noticing and for being proactive about it.  He is going to pick it up over time but you can always give him a hand!

Test their understanding

One quick note is that before we can teach our children about gender in grammar we need to make sure they understand the concept in general.  A quick way of figuring that out is if they can correctly identify who is a boy and who is a girl.  You can assess this by asking him about his friends and if you think he’s got a good handle on it, then by all means start incorporating grammar. 

If you also have a question that you would like answered on the show, send it my way at bilingualavenue.com/contact

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

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Comments 1

  1. I like all your tips. I had my son visit a speech pathologist today for an assessment, and I noticed how she used different tactics to get my son to talk. Some were mentioned by you above. Especially in modelling the correct grammar usage, and then questioning that. For example, she would say something like, “What is the boy doing?” My son would say, “He swimmed.” and she would respond, “that’s right, the boy is swimming.” It was pretty neat.

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