Trying to teach kids their native language

We are having a tough time keeping a bilingual household. Though we are all from the same country only one parent speaks our native language, and neither child is fluent in it. The kids are 14 & 12 and are both learning other languages at school; we are trying to reinforce our language and culture but it is a struggle. Speaking only in it and not English is becoming confusing and difficult to keep an ear. We tried classes as well but it is an unpopular language in the U.S and learning via zoom was chaotic.

How did you maintain a bilingual house, especially when your kids first language was english? How do you keep an "ear" for a language, and most especially- teach a new language to (pre) teens?

Thank you all so much! Looking forward to your advice! : )

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It's really tough! Our best finds so far: italki (matches you with a native speaker/teacher, often at reasonable rates (depending on language/country); regular video calls with grandparents; travel and language immersion through whatever camp/childcare situation will take the kids.  

Hi there! First, about using your languages at home: From your description it was unclear who in the family speaks what, but in general, the best method is for each parent to only speak their own language to their kids, and be consistent about it. For example, Parent A speaks language A to kids, Parent B speaks language B to kids, and kids reply in whatever language they want. So you may be mixing languages at home, but each parent will be consistent with their own language. This is how two-language families in bilingual countries usually do it. Once you have that in place, I would advise you not to force the kids to use a particular language (especially at ages 12 & 14), but just keep encouraging them. If they aren't fluent now, realize that they may not become fluent in the next few years, but they can certainly improve their skills, and everything they do learn is a plus. If they learn to understand another language, it will be very easy for them to learn to speak it later if they want, and even being able to understand another language is a huge advantage and a gift! Second, I don't know what language this is, so I wouldn't know what resources are available, but there are lots of online language courses these days and you can even access many of them free through the public library. There are also organizations that match native speakers with language learners. Maybe you can access online TV/online radio in that language? Many countries produce a simplified version of the news for non-native speakers. Also, in the Bay Area chances are good that you can find a way to connect with other speakers of your language. Finally, don't give up, keep it positive, and your kids will eventually be thankful for this opportunity! Try not to make it a chore or make language a charged issue at home, and remember that kids may seem uninterested in a language for years and then suddenly embrace learning it! 

My wife has also had this same issue - she is Dutch. I might have some suggestions and could potentially connect the two of you (she's not on BPN), if you reach out to me. I must admit that I'm so curious about which language/culture this is! 

~Mailisha 

It is tough. One thing I've found easier, is that rather than trying to speak in that language ALL the time at home, limiting it to when the speaking parent has 1:1 or 1:2 time with the kids means less need to switch back and forth.

YouTube now has a wealth of cartoons, TV shows etc. in all languages, and you can even put closed captioning on! So the written words reinforces what their ear for the language. We don't allow our kids to watch TV in English on the weekdays-- weekends only. If they want to watch TV after school, it's either in the second language or none at all.

Zoom lessons (we did Preply) have been chaotic for us as well, but I found that the flashcard homework really helped build up new vocabulary and only took  5-10 minutes a day of review and practice. 

NPR recently did an article on heritage speakers that I found helpful and put perspective on things: https://www.npr.org/2022/05/25/1101187823/how-to-learn-a-heritage-language

We have raised two bilingual kids, now 9 and 11, through one-parent, one-language methods - I am the English speaking parent but I know our other language enough to follow conversations, and my partner speaks our non-English language exclusively with our kids and requires them to speak it back. We also had the benefit of an immersion preschool where our kids made their first friends, and where we connected with other bilingual (or even trilingual) families also trying to support their kids to know their heritage language. Our preschool teachers emphasized the importance of community and practicality in succeeding with this project. Kids are practical, they won’t speak a language just because you say it’s important, it has to be actually useful. And having it be something normal - not a weird thing just our family does - at least among some of their friends is also key. We keep expecting our kids to get to a point where they decide they hate the non-English language (power struggle, parent resistance, etc) but to date they are proud of their identity as bicultural and they maintain close friendships with other bilingual kids from preschool even though they are all in different schools now. So given that your kids are older, perhaps an immersion camp or some family engagement with other families/groups that speak the language, could help? I suspect they would still be able to strengthen their base of knowledge through some sort of intensive immersion experience and if it comes with ongoing friendships then that would help it stick. Good luck!!

I actually gave up on my child being fluent in my native language for now. Before the child began elementary school, I was pretty diligent about speaking my native language. But, my spouse is monolingual and my spouse began to feel excluded. As the child began elementary school, I saw the same thing that happened to me. Child chose to speak the dominant language. I grew up in a trilingual household. Parents had a different native tongue. My father spoke to me in his native language but I always responded back in the dominant language. We had an interesting communication style where we spoke different languages to each other but we understood each other fairly well. I did choose his native language as a foreign language in college and although I started as a beginner, my progress was much faster than my peers. After the first year and then a summer immersion program in that country, I became quite proficient. If I had chosen to continue, I would have become fluent. I chose to remain at fully conversational but not fully literate, as I was satisfied that I could speak with my father and relatives but didn’t feel the need to be able to advance beyond that. I hope that my child will take a similar path. I continue to speak in my native language for all things that matter to the child most — asking for snacks, expressing needs like hunger, sleep, thirst, etc. Child speaks English but I choose to use words in my language. It’s a meager attempt but at least the child knows that there are many different words for “water” and the word we use at home is not the English word.

We have a weekly virtual tutor for the language and it helps the child keep up with basic skills but it is not enough for the child to be fluent. There are no immersion schools for my native language, so I hope someday the child will pick it up as I did with my dad’s language. 
 

If the child wants extra screen time, we allow it but only in the foreign language. Peppa Pig is available in so many languages!