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Key tips

We are based in England, so we refer to English as the community language.

  • If you are worried about your children learning English: Don't! Your children will always learn the community language. If you speak only another language at home, try to arrange some exposure to the community language “ child care, play groups, nursery, visiting friends “ before your child starts school. But don't worry, even if they don't speak English at all, when they start school they will very soon catch up.
  • Set yourself a goal: Think about what level of bilingualism you would like your children to achieve ultimately i.e. understand but not fluent in speaking, fluent in understanding and speaking at home, able to read a newspaper, able to work, speak at a meeting, write a report. A certain level of bilingualism, with the average child, can be achieved without much or any sacrifice at all. If you want to aim higher, then think about how far you are prepared to put yourself out in order to achieve this. If your options are limited because you have other constraints (money to pay for the ideal childcare, space for the minority language Au Pair, you need to work fulltime and cannot spend as much time as you would like with your children) or priorities (your career, your children's piano/ballet/football lessons), you may have to accept a lower level of bilingualism.
  • More (high quality) input = more output: The general rule is that the more exposure your child has to both languages, the better their level of understanding and speaking will be. But remember that it is an issue of quality as well as quantity. Bilingual quality time is having a rich and varied conversation where both you and your child (once they are talking sentences) express a wide range of ideas or discuss concepts (from colours, numbers, animals, with younger children to space and science and relationships “ or whatever your 4-7 year old is currently fascinated by). This is easy to say but more difficult to achieve. Everything that the books and experts say is good at developing one language is also good for developing two “ nursery rhymes, poems, songs, reading stories together, word games, talking to your child and listening to your child in the car, in the supermarket, discussing a TV programme, a book, an event.
  • It is useful to adopt a set of rules of who speaks which language at what times to children. The rules are not important in themselves, (one parent; one language, one place; one language; one set of people; one language) but very young children (0-3 years approx) seem to benefit from this as it helps them understand that there are two distinct languages involved. If you find that you can't stick to your system totally, don't worry that is normal too. (See also common concern 2).
  • Languages vary in the availability of materials, resources, people, so here we have suggested the easy route and ways you can get round problems. Ways to expose your child(ren) to a minority language that have worked for us are listed here “ they begin with the least expensive/time intensive/difficult and get progressively more demanding.
    • Books, tapes, CDs “ you can get these in most languages now in libraries, over the internet, during visits home, even if you have to arrange for a friend or family member to buy them elsewhere and send them to you. If no books exist, you can make up stories or tell traditional stories from your culture to your child. If you cut out and colour some of the main characters in a story, your child will love acting it out using them without a book and will use their imagination to supply the settings. If you or your child really feel the need for pictures, you can find books that have no words and you can write in the text in your language or just tell the story in your language from memory. Discuss the story with your child.
    • Satellite TV, videos, DVDs “ again can be got in many languages including some that have fewer written resources e.g. Kurmanji Kurdish Sattelite TV. This has the advantage that it contains the relevant culture as well as the language (unless of course you disagree with the cultural content e.g. some Hebrew speaking families do not watch Israeli satellite TV as they are not Jewish and do not approve of many of the things that the Israeli government does). The cost of satellite TV equipment and subscriptions may be a disadvantage. Videos come in different formats “ but you can get the tapes copied onto the format used in the UK relatively cheaply (i.e. £3-£5), alternatively you may be able to buy a video player in the alternative format. DVDs bought anywhere in the world can be played in the UK. The fact that TV does not require children to speak can be a disadvantage as it may strengthen a child's listening skills in a language without helping them speak (and some children go through a phase when they understand their second language but are reluctant to speak it.) Strangely some children seem to react particularly well to TV, videos, DVDs that are translations e.g. children who are fond of Bob the Builder in English discover that Bob also speaks French and this can make them feel much more positive about the French language!
    • Computer games and sites: Currently most provision is in European languages but Asian languages are also provided for. African languages are unlikely to have computer games for some years yet. Many of our members have bought computer games either on trips home or via the internet. It can be harder to find good games that you approve of at a distance and without a source of advice such as a family member with slightly older children. Many national TV stations have now set up sites for children (linked to the children's shows they produce, this is a good route to try). There are also a number of multilingual sites set up by progressive organisations (e.g. www.uptoten.com based in Canada is one that is now available in 6 languages). Clearly you need a computer at home, internet access and computer games are not cheap. However, computers are still very cool and attractive to children and if they are also available in the minority language this can help children view it positively.
    • As children get older a minority language school can be very good value. Usually on a Saturday morning some schools/clubs take children from 2 years old, others are more suitable for children of nursery age and they often provide right up into the teens. There is a national organisation in the UK (Resource Unit 020 7700 8189) that keeps lists of all these schools and can tell you if there is one in your area. If not, they offer training and advice on how to set one up (if there are enough families). These schools can provide high quality input in a language, often have libraries to lend out materials, but perhaps most importantly for older children, they provide a peer group where children (who often want to fit in and don't want to be seen as different) meet other children speaking their language and understand that it is not unique to one family. Another useful source of information about schools in some languages is the Embassy of a relevant country (of course this applies mainly to national languages).
    • Child care (usually child minder, shared nanny etc) in that language is a very tempting option if both parents work. It can take some effort and luck to find a suitable minority language child minder in your local area. Some childminders include information about languages they speak on local authority lists but often only when these languages are very widely spoken in the local community. Some members have had some success through putting up adverts in clinics, surgeries, nurseries, and playgroups or through advertising in papers published by the Embassy or language community (although these usually cover a much wider area). If you have a large enough house, bringing an au pair from your country may be a possibility although the fact that au pairs can stay a limited time and work a limited number of hours per week might be a problem. Bringing in a nanny for a longer period would be another idea but (outside of the EU at least) raises all sorts of immigration/work permission issues so you are going to have to be quite determined to attempt this.
    • Relatives/friends “ going to stay with relatives and/or friends who speak the minority language can be a very good option “ even though flights may be expensive. It clearly has many other advantages for every family. For some, particularly asylum seekers, refugees and exiles, it may not be an option. It may be more difficult than you think to persuade family members and friends to speak the minority language to your child(ren). Similarly inviting minority language relatives and or friends to come and stay with you will increase the minority language spoken in the household.
  • Expect ups and downs, expect to need to persist, expect others to tell you it is not working/is not worth attempting.
    Family members will often comment on your attempts to raise children bilingually “ even people who would respect your other choices for your children may feel that they can comment on bilingualism because in monolingual societies it may be seen as a bit different. Advice from professionals can be more scary. If you are given advice by a professional, make sure it is someone with a considerable degree of knowledge about bilingualism. Although it is less common than it once was, many doctors, nurses, health visitors, and teachers (not to mention TV researchers and producers) hold totally out of date and incorrect views about bilingualism. No one should advise you to give up raising your child bilingually. (If your child has a significant disability e.g. partial deafness or dyslexia, get specialist help “ both from bilingualism experts and experts in that particular area). Being bilingual is not bad for your child, will not hold them back, confuse them or make life difficult for them; in fact it gives them many advantages. If someone gives you advice that worries you, find another professional who is really informed about bilingualism and talk to them before acting. Most London boroughs have a speech therapist specialising in bilingualism on their team, as do most Sure Start teams. If you can't find someone locally, contact us and we will see what we can do “ we are not experts, but we know people who are, and they may be able to put you in touch with an expert in your area. If your child speaks very late, speaks only one language, tells you that he or she hates the second language, be assured that all of this is normal. It does not mean you should give up, it is a phase and your child will move through it and move on as long as he or she gets the message from you that both languages are important to you.
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