Saturday, 23 May 2015

How to get kids to speak your language

Our kids are bilingual. They speak both English and Russian fluently and willingly. My 6 year old can now read books in Russian. 

So how did we get there?  I know that a lot of parents struggle with getting kids to speak their  language. I want to share with you a few things that, I believe, made it work for us. 

1st. There is a NEED for Russian language in our family, it is a part of everyday life. My kids speak Russian because they need to communicate with me, first of all, with each other, my parents, my sister  and friends. My prime goal for language at home is  that *I* need to speak with my kids in Russian, not because it is good for the brain or because relatives will be happy. Those things are secondary,  really. Good level of language is not going to happen unless YOU need it to communicate meaningfully with your kids. 

2nd.  I put a lot of WORK teaching language to my kids. In the beginning when my daughter was a baby I did lots of research on the subject of bilingualism. I'm very thankful to Multilingual Living site for all the helpful information they share.  I spend a lot of time with kids talking, singing, reading, explaining things,  searching internet, compiling learning materials, making power points,  printing, laminating. It is only now in Australia there are people with online shops that are selling Russian book (which helps a lot), but when my older child was a baby, good picture books were hard to find here. So I made them. I picked the songs that my daughter liked, searched for the words in the internet as well as relevant pictures, compiled, printed, laminated, put together, and we read and sang. I have a whole box of these books. As they are in large print they also became her first readers. I also worked full time back then, and made books on lunch breaks and sick days. 

3rd. We READ a lot. How much is a lot? I try to read to them at least for 1 hour a day EACH (well, younger brother often gets double time, depending on what I'm reading to my older child). Sometimes it is more, sometimes less. We try to read what they like. My 6 year old loves stories and fairy tales and doesn't like picture books much  (most likely due to her poor vision).  2 year old brother loves books with very detailed pictures and good illustrations. We invest a lot of money in quality books and buying books in such large quantities is not cheap!

4th. I speak my language to my kids IN PUBLIC.  You can often find us singing songs or telling stories on the swings on playground :).  That's because we are “One Parent One Language (OPOL)” family. Kids hear mostly Russian from me (with rare exceptions) and English from daddy. We have never, so far,  heard anyone saying negative things about us speaking another language, only compliments!  The exception is only when non-Russian speaker are part of the conversation or when we interact with them directly (like in doctor's office or teacher's meeting) - then we speak English. When we are together with my husband I tend to say important things twice in 2 languages - we took on board advice from our family doctor from a few years ago (he had bilingual kids himself).  It was strange at first, then I got used to it. Dinner time is a bit special though, it is time when the whole family tends to speak English.
My kids speak Russian to each other when they play by themselves and only switch to English when daddy or English friend is near them. 

My 6 year old loves Russian and she's great model for her younger brother. She had a slight speech delay, only starting to speak properly closer to the age of 3.  Younger brother started speaking early,  he spoke in sentences before he was 1.5, and by 1.5 already new what language to speak to mummy and which to daddy. I remember the breakthrough moment was "Papa - "car", Mama - "mashinka" and after that he new exactly what language to speak with Mama and which with Papa : ). 

5th. We have SUPPORT from family. Although my family lives overseas and they can’t visit often, they send us books and talk to the kids on Skype for hours. My husband, although not speaking Russian much himself, is very supportive of kids speaking the language. He is bilingual himself in English and Portuguese, however chose not to teach his language to kids. 

6th.  We visit COMMUNITY events. It is very important, I think. At least some of them - to show kids how many people in the community speak the language. . I take kids to multiple Christmas parties, often to the other end of the city, school holiday workshops, we went to Russian family camp for a week not too long ago. I also used to organise Russian story time for kids with puppet shows and music in the library and a local Community Centre. 

7th. I'm teaching my kids how to READ & WRITE.  My kids currently don't attend Saturday school, but they might in the future. My daughter used to go once a week when she was 1-2  year old and then when she was 4 to Russian language kids studio.  Now I homeschool them in Russian on my own on evenings and week-ends. For instance, I taught my daughter to read myself using some materials I bought online. 

8th. We use TECHNOLOGY and it is set up in our house to support language learning. Our TV is actually a computer monitor and nearly all Russian kids cartoons, lots of kids shows and movies are available on YouTube. Now there are also plenty of iPad applications in Russian. We also have CDs with songs and audio books in our car. 

9th. It might sound like hard work by now :). Well, it is, but also very FUN  and rewarding! I enjoy reading to my kids books from my childhood, new books that I never read as a child. We use Russian as our secret language at times  (better be careful with that though :)). Needless to say, my kids can have meaningful conversations with grandparents. 

10th. Now we are up to the NEW CHALLENGES. Apart from teaching younger brother to read and teaching grammar to my older daughter, there are a few worries.  Since my older daughter is at school and younger brother is starting preschool full time in a couple of months things could change a bit since my influence will weaken and English-speaking peers and teacher's influence will strengthen. 

I'm also planning to go back to full time or nearly full time job.  For kids to actively speak the minority language, they need to hear it at least 30% of the time. With full time job and other parent not speaking the language getting 30% is tough. Let's say, you have 16 waking hours a day 7 a week = total 112 hours a week. If you spend 1 hour a day in the morning and 2 hours in the evening, that's 3 h per day on week days. On the week-ends, let's say, spending 10 to 12 hours is nearly realistic. So, if counting by maximum, (3*5+12*2) /112= 39/112 we get 35%.  It is theoretically realistic,  provided that all you do is spending time with kids, but tough. Kids do sports on the week-ends, birthday parties, playdates, other things not involving you. Also you need to spend time with your English-speaking husband. How much time will be really left?  

 Working 4 days a week instead of 5 will help a lot with getting more time for language, or, perhaps, getting a flexible  hours job. 

What are  your thoughts on the subject? 

How do you manage to keep the language, and, perhaps, work at the same time? Please feel free to share in the comments.


  1. Great article! Thank too for sharing your tips Tatiana! I will definitely take on board your tip about making your own books detailing my kids favourite songs. Please write more!

    1. Thank you, Anna. I think, making books based on her interests was very important in my daughter's language learning. We still make books with her sometimes, she draws pictures to them herself now and we don't need to laminate any more.