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18 Ways to Get Bilingual Kids Using the Minority Language More in Your Car

October 14, 2015

18 Ways to Get Bilingual Kids Using the Minority Language More in Your Car

In my last post, I shared a trip that we took to an old silver mining town in Japan, offering a number of photos and an important message about raising bilingual kids. (See Make History. Raise a Bilingual Child.)

As we were driving along, and playing little games in our minority language, it occurred to me that this might make a useful post:

What activities can parents pursue in the car to promote use of the target language and stretch language development?

Here, then, are 18 ideas that I hope will be helpful to your efforts. Some of the games can be played competitively, if you prefer, but I generally stick to non-competitive versions. (My kids have a tendency to break into warfare very quickly, and this is no fun at all inside a cramped car.)

1. Play Music
This is an obvious suggestion, but it’s worth pondering for a moment. Do you really have enough suitable music in the minority language? And do you play it regularly, in the car as well as at home? At the same time, are you consciously limiting the amount of music you play in the majority language? In my case, the only music we play in the car (and generally at home) is in English, our minority language. (If English is your target language, too, see Great Music for Kids and Great Christmas Music.)

2. Sing Songs
Of course, you can sing along with the music that you play. You can also sing songs to your kids and have them sing with you, when they’re able. (And no excuses about you sounding like a frog.) On our recent trip, I tried singing some rounds with my kids (like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”) and, though giggling became a big part of it, it was time well spent.

3. Play Audio Books
Along with music, make an effort to find audio recordings of suitable books and stories in your target language. When children listen to stories, they listen more intently, and this kind of concentrated listening deepens language development. (In English, you’ll find no better storyteller for kids than Bill Harley.)

4. Read Books
You could read books to your kids (if you’re not the one driving!). You could also make a habit of keeping books in the car for your children to look at. (My kids, though, tend to feel a bit ill if they read in a moving car so this isn’t a tactic we can effectively pursue.)

5. Narrate the Ride
When your children are still small, make a habit of narrating what you see as you drive along, connecting your observations and thoughts to their young lives when you can. Remember, along with reading aloud, the most powerful way of nurturing early language development is by providing ample input through speech during the first few years.

6. Be Chatty
As your children become more communicative, make a conscious effort to be chatty. Engage them in conversation by asking questions about their experiences, their thoughts, and their feelings. I’m reminded of the surprising discussion I had with my daughter when she was 8 years old.

7. Be My Parrot
When you want a younger child to try speaking more in the minority language, give this little game a go. Playfully tell the child to be a parrot and repeat everything you say, just as you say it. Depending on the child, you might say only short, simple words or you could try words that are a bit longer and even short (silly) sentences. Then offer to switch and be the parrot yourself—this will encourage active language use even more.

8. Spot the Color
Choose a color and, as you’re driving along (assuming your kids can see out the window), try to spot things of that color. For example, if the chosen color is yellow, perhaps you’ll see a house, a flower, a sign, etc. If the child is unable to name the object, offer the word and encourage repetition.

9. Spot the Letter
Instead of colors, choose a letter and then look for things that begin with that letter. For example, if the chosen letter is “t”, the players might call out “truck,” “tree,” “tunnel,” or even (but let’s hope not) “tornado.” Continue the game with other letters (or starting syllables) in your target language.

10. Rhyme Time
Start with a word that has a fair number of rhyming words. For example, in English, start with “cat” and then continue, in turn, with rhyming words like “hat,” “sat,” “splat,” etc. Try a variety of starting words and see what sort of lists you and your children can produce. Some kids might like to attempt silly sentences with several rhyming words, like “The fat cat sat on my hat.”

11. Secret Word
One person thinks of a “secret word” and gives a series of clues so the other players can guess what it is. For example, if the word is “banana,” the clues could be: “It’s yellow.” “It grows on trees.” “It’s something you eat.” “Monkeys like it a lot.” The words and clues can be very simple, or more complex, depending on the age and language ability of the child.

12. Categories
A category is chosen, like “toys” or “vehicles,” then each person, in turn, must say a word that fits this category. When you tire of one category, try another. For older kids, the categories can be made more challenging, such as “things that are white” or “things that are sticky.”

13. Last Letter
Every language probably has its own version of this little game. One person says a word (any word or limited to a certain category, like “animals” or “verbs”) and the next person has to say a word that begins with the last letter (or syllable, depending on your language) of the previous word. Continue in this way, word by word, until you exhaust your store of vocabulary (or simply get exhausted).

14. Opposites
Try posing adjectives to your children, at the appropriate level, and see if they can name a suitable opposite (big/small, silly/serious, etc.). You could do the same sort of activity but, instead of opposites, ask for synonyms (big/huge, silly/wacky, etc.).

15. Word Association
This is an interesting activity and works well when children are a bit older. One person starts by saying a noun, like “lion.” Then the players, in turn, add individual words that are linked to this starting word. For example, if you start with “lion,” this might be followed by such words as “roar,” “mane,” “claws,” “scary,” “king,” “Africa,” etc. Try a variety of starting nouns (animals, things, places) to stretch your children’s store of vocabulary in the minority language.

16. Memory Game
Choose a setting—in the car, at your house, inside your suitcase, etc.—then the first person names something you’d find there. After that, each player, in turn, must say everything that came before then add something new. For example, after several turns, the sentence might sound like this: “At our house, we have a sofa, a TV, a bookcase, a washing machine, a brown teddy bear…and a little hamster.” Continue making the longest sentence you can (adding adjectives and other descriptors, if you like), with the players giving hints to help one another when stuck. You could also veer from reality and let imagination run free with sentences like: “At our house, we have a dinosaur, a race car, a swimming pool with a water slide, sixteen hungry goats…and a portal into another universe.”

17. Guess the Animal
This activity is basically the old “20 Questions” game, but without a limit to the number of questions. One person thinks of an animal (or something from another category, if you prefer, like “kinds of jobs” or “places in town”), then the other players ask “yes or no” questions to zero in on that animal. For example, the questions could be: “Is it a mammal?” “Does it eat meat?” “Can it run fast?” This is a game that my kids and I play often and it nurtures not only language ability but logical thought.

18. Tell a Story
You and your kids tell a story (the sillier, the better) by building it sentence by sentence, one sentence per turn. For example, you start by saying: “Once upon a time a little boy went for a walk in the woods.” Then one child adds: “In the woods he saw a bear.” The next child says: “The bear was sitting under a tree and crying.” Continue in this way, accepting whatever your kids want to contribute. (Basically, my only “rule” is that players can’t immediately dismiss the contribution that came before, like saying: “No, he didn’t really see a bear. He saw a beaver.”) This sort of group storytelling is an effective and engaging language activity which often produces fun results.

Of course, many of these activities and games can be useful at home and in other settings, too. Give them a try for some productive fun!

How about you? Can you add another activity or game that could promote use of the minority language in the car?

1 Amy October 21, 2015 at 8:39 pm

We have a 20 minute drive every day from school to home, and although I can usually engage my 7 year old for part of the time, after a while, she just needs to relax. Often we listen to music, but just recently I found a podcast pitching science topics at an elementary school level. The first one we listened to (on thunder and lightening) was a bit challenging for her, but she was positive about listening to more!

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2 Adam October 22, 2015 at 6:24 am

Amy, yes, podcasts in the minority language are another good possibility. And I’m glad you mentioned that these sorts of attempts to boost language exposure should naturally be balanced with the child’s need to rest and relax. It pays to be proactive, but going beyond that, and becoming pushy, could end up being counterproductive. A good barometer of engagement, I think, is the child’s level of interest and enjoyment.

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