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Passing on heritage languages at home (ages 0-5)

13 Apr 2022 8:59 AM | Anonymous member

By Cheryl Chepusova

Why learn a heritage language?

In our family, we have two children under the age of 5 and we speak four languages with them regularly: our community language, English, along with three of our heritage languages: Chinese (Cantonese Chinese and Mandarin Chinese) from myself and Russian from my husband. Before our children were born, my husband and I decided that it would be important for us to share our mother tongues with our children. Later on in their lives, our children may still want to study a foreign language of their choice, but their heritage language learning is about exactly that: heritage.

While neither of us have a background in linguistics or education, we can still be our children’s most effective teachers, leveraging the trust and relationship we have with them to integrate a language we know into their lives. Sharing our heritage languages with them gives us another layer of expressing ourselves to our children so we never feel we have to translate or be at a loss for words. We teach our children our languages to build connections–with us as parents, with our relatives, and with our culture.

But isn’t learning a language really hard?

Deciding to teach your child a language is a long-term commitment and requires dedication and perseverance. It is very much a marathon – one in which you need to adjust your pace and direction as your child takes the lead. You already know the language, so the work is in how you add it to your life. Our approach to this has been to introduce the heritage language gently to our children, building it into our home naturally from the day they are born.

Practical strategies we’ve tried at home

Infants (0-1)

  • Start your relationship with your child in your heritage language. Many people recommend methods like OPOL (One Person One Language) or MLAH (Minority Language at Home) to provide guidance on when to use which language. Our family didn’t adopt either strategy and simply tried to speak to our children naturally and consistently in our native languages from birth. Both of our children have learned to code switch when talking to each parent and to each other, and the heritage language has become the default language we use before English.
  • Narrate and describe what you see and do. Get used to hearing yourself speak in your heritage language to your baby – they might not understand yet, but they already love listening to your voice. If you don’t usually speak your heritage language daily at home, this will allow you to warm up for when your baby grows older. It may feel like you’re talking to yourself, but the foundation you lay will set your child up to have conversations with you in a few years.
  • Repeat vocabulary and build them into routines. Infants thrive on routine and it adds structure to the day for parents too. You can help them know what to expect by repeating useful expressions like “milk” or “change” or “sleep” when you’re doing the action. They’ll hear it so much, repeated throughout their daily routine that these will be the first words they familiarize themselves with when they learn to speak.

Toddlers (1-3)

  • Read a lot. You can read any material to your toddler in the language you want – picture books, magazines, menus, flyers...they can’t tell even if you’re translating it from English! Books in another language are hard to come by in the US or are expensive to import so make the best of what you have access to and read often. Visual dictionaries are a great format to introduce basic nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions in context, and gradually your child will learn to point them out on the pages too.
  • Sing nursery rhymes and teach language through music. Toddlers love music and singing is a great way to help them remember the lyrics. Nursery rhymes tend to be repetitive and include early learning concepts like numbers, colors, foods, body parts, or animals, and are wonderful starting points for building everyday vocabulary.
  • Give your child the words they need by echoing what they are trying to say. Toddlers will start to string together phrases and sentences, and they will constantly be acquiring new vocabulary. You can enrich their expressions by echoing what they’ve said and adding to it. For example, your toddler might say “look, car!” You can elaborate on that by adding “Yes, look at that blue car! That’s a really fast blue car.” If your child prefers to speak in English, don’t fret, instead recast what they just said so they can learn the words in a different language. Recasting is really effective, as more often than not, your child isn’t resistant to speaking in your heritage language, they just don’t have the vocabulary.

Preschoolers (3-5)

  • Broaden vocabulary with interests and activities. At this age, you can move beyond everyday vocabulary in the home and help them expand their words in both breadth and depth, depending on what they want to talk about. If your child is fascinated by vehicles (like mine are) you can lean into their interest and introduce different types of vehicles and all their parts. Learn poems, follow a recipe, sing along to pop music…do whatever your child loves in your heritage language so that it’s impressionable. If you visit a zoo or farm, talk about all the animals–what they’re called, how you’d describe them, and what they are doing. Take a trip to the grocery store in your heritage language. Conversing in contexts beyond your home environment shows your child there is a place for them to apply this language in the community too. Don’t be afraid to get specific as your child is eager to learn about the topic they love! Celebrate your culture’s traditions and customs in the native language. Start to introduce older children to science and history too, just as you would in English.
  • Keep reading. Books offer an abundance of opportunities for discussion after. Each time you read it, a different part of the book may pique different interests. The format is dynamic and interactive. Reading together also sets aside time for connecting – even as your child learns to read independently, make it a part of your routine to read aloud to them.
  • Explore audio stories and videos. Nothing beats dialogue and interaction, so save any passive learning methods for later. Once your child has a firm foundation in comprehending and speaking, educational videos are a great way to engage your child and supplement their learning. Watch together so you can discuss the content and answer your child’s questions, helping them with any new concepts and words. We also love incorporating audio stories to our bedtime routine or on longer rides in the car too. Exposing them to different voices, pronunciations, and accents improves your child’s listening ability in the heritage language.
  • Find a community of support. Pair your child with a peer for play dates in the heritage language. Forming relationships with peers in the heritage language is a wonderful way to encourage your child to use it. For them to feel motivated to learn and use their heritage language, they have to feel a belonging to a community and connect with people they can use the language with. If in-person interactions are not available, explore virtual options like group classes, online 1:1 tutors, and language partners to continue to supplement your child’s learning. You’ll feel more supported and uncover many resources along the way from families with like-minded learning goals.

Balancing the heritage and community languages

As your child interacts with the larger community, their English skills will eventually catch up to or even overtake their heritage language. You can rely on your existing language relationship with your child, and gently nudge them to switch to your shared language by recasting, but don’t translate. Even if they might speak more English, stay the course. Inspire and encourage them to continue conversing with you about their interests.

Continue to teach by modeling, echoing, recasting, but don’t test. While your child might not speak on the spot when you ask them to, they’ll also surprise you with beautiful long sentences you didn’t realize they knew. Language learning can feel more like a lifestyle and less like extracurricular, and that’s because teaching a heritage language is also about passing down your culture to your child. The language your child learns becomes a part of who they are, it’s more than a skill, and it can be a really special thing.

Cheryl Chepusova is a designer, writer, and the author of the children's book series, Big Cities Little Foodies, and others.


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