We hear time and time again that raising bilingual children is a challenge. Why are our children too embarrassed to speak English? Are there any tricks to help encourage them to speak English?
There are obvious differences between bi-cultural families and those families where both parents are non-native English speakers. A bi-cultural family benefits from having a native parent who can pretend not to be able to speak Spanish or can create situations where only English is spoken (like at bedtime, or when talking about films or TV programs that they have seen). However, there are more and more Spanish families that regularly use English at home for whom the challenge of achieving conversations in English with their children is slightly different.
Neither parent is a native English speaker. What shall we do to encourage spoken English?
I greatly admire Spanish parents who have decided to bring up their children bilingually despite not being native speakers themselves. Don’t give up! You are doing the right thing! The British Council strongly advocates speaking English at home and provides the following advice for non-native parents (which can be downloaded in Spanish once the user has registered, for free, on the website):
Two of the most common ways to encourage English speaking that I have seen work among parents at my children’s school is:
1) Practice the vocabulary first: before starting a conversation in English with your child, try refreshing your memory with all the vocabulary that may be needed to chat freely. For example, before chatting about the latest match, gently remind your child of words such as “goalkeeper”, “referee”, “free kick”, etc.
2) Repeat a conversation: another option is to converse freely with your child in Spanish and then try to repeat the same conversation in English. Your child knows you aren’t English and that therefore this is a challenge for you too. Make it fun and see whether, in fact, your child knows more English than you do!
Bi-cultural families: are our children shy, lazy or lacking in confidence?
I must admit I don’t feel much comfort knowing I’m not the only native parent who has difficulties encouraging her children to reply in English. Putting aside feelings of failure and guilt, perhaps it is worth questioning why our children find it so hard to reply to us in English. Are they lazy? Do they feel embarrassed? Or do they lack basic vocabulary or language skills to be able to converse freely?
In order to answer these questions I asked Shelley Vernon from Home English Teacher for a bit of advice homeenglishteacher , as follows:
- 1) One language at home: try to be strict about home being an English-speaking environment, even when the other parent isn’t particularly fluent in English.
- 2) Play games and act at home: Children love to wear costumes and put on shows! Here is a selection of games which help with conversational English, from ages 3 upwards:
teaching english games
3) Having an English-speaking puppet at home: Shelley tells a story of a parent who had great difficulty persuading his child to chat to him in English until one day he picked up one of the puppets they had at home and asked his little boy, aged 4, how he was feeling today. The boy immediately answered in perfect English “I’m fine thank you!” From then onwards the parent started using the puppet as a vehicle for conversing in English with his son, always keeping it fun and making the puppet do silly things or say funny sentences to make his son laugh. Interestingly, his son has never failed to speak to the puppet in English.
Shelley Vernon warns parents like me not to abuse the “I don’t understand” routine to force our children to reply to us in English. She prefers us to encourage our children to repeat what they have said in English, telling them we know they are so clever that they will be able to say the same thing in English too. As the British Council would agree, we should never ever underestimate the power of praise.
My rule of thumb is not to give up… as long as my children understand me in English I am sure that the speaking will come sooner or later!
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