Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

Using Made-Up Memories to Engage Bilingual Kids

October 1, 2012

In Strange-But-True Tales: Baby Chicks in the Bathtub, I talk about how sharing memories from your childhood can be a great way of engaging with your children in the minority language, particularly at mealtimes. Kids love to hear about their parents’ (mis)adventures when they were kids themselves, making such stories arguably the most captivating “listening material” available to us.

But what do you do when the conversation dries up at the dinner table, and your aging brain is unable to unearth another true tale from your long-buried childhood? (And you’re tired of repeating that story about baby chicks.)

Simple. Just make one up.

The real and the fantasy

First, let me be clear: I don’t recommend that you get your children all mixed up about your real memories and your made-up memories. In my case, I’m careful to distinguish between the real and the fantasy with Lulu and Roy. But this is very easy, really, when the “made-up memories” are full of fantasy themselves. Maybe they would have a tougher time of this at a younger age, but my kids (now 8 and 5) aren’t inclined to confuse the true tale of a Christmas tree falling off the roof of our car on the busiest street in town with an imaginary tale involving a grove of Christmas trees chasing me through the forest.

Made-up memories isn’t something I do every day, mind you. It takes energy and imagination, and sometimes, frankly, I’m no better than a weary zombie at the dinner table. But when I have some spunk, it can be a really fun and effective way to generate lively conversation and nurture the language development of my kids.

Three ways to use made-up memories

There are three basic ways to make use of made-up memories:

1. Tell made-up memories about yourself.
As I’ve already suggested, you can spin fantastical stories about your own childhood. You can even start by telling a tale that seems real enough, but then takes a wild turn and becomes completely over-the-top. (Visiting a Christmas tree farm to choose a tree is a real enough scenario where I grew up, but having bloodthirsty Christmas trees chase after you probably is not.)

2. Tell made-up memories about your children.
My own kids seem to enjoy this even more than the made-up memories about myself. For instance, one favorite opening involves Roy, when still in diapers, crawling through my legs and out the front door. From there, the story has fractured into various absurd adventures, but often takes on a “Gingerbread Man” sort of structure, where we’re all running vainly after baby Roy.

Let me add something here about making up stories. It may seem challenging at first to just open your mouth and reel off a tale, but it’s actually easier than you think, once you get a story going. It’s possible, of course, to concoct such stories in advance, but improvising them is generally better for these two reasons: 1) You don’t have to expend any energy beforehand (and if you make it a task, it becomes a less-appealing strategy); and 2) Stories told “in the moment” are often fresher and funnier than something you might devise by yourself, without your kids listening. (Your imagination will surprise you.)

At the same time, incorporating elements from familiar stories can make your made-up memories a bit easier to tell. As I do with Roy, why not begin a tale à la “The Gingerbread Man,” where your child has run (crawled) out the door and everyone is trying to catch her? Then let your imagination freely take it from there. (Another advantage of casting the child in the gingerbread man role is that children seem to relish the idea of being able to outrace others!)

One last suggestion about made-up memories starring your children: These stories can also be easier to tell, and more fun for the child to hear, when you include things that are part of the child’s everyday experience. The juxtaposition of the familiar, with the outrageous, is something that children find very entertaining. In other words, if you’re telling that gingerbread man-like tale, the pursuers might naturally be the members of your family, the child’s teacher, and other familiar folks, while the settings could include places in the neighborhood and other locations familiar to the child. (You may not want to have your child eaten by a fox at the end, though. :mrgreen: )

3. Let your children tell made-up memories, too.
When I start telling made-up memories, Lulu and Roy invariably demand the chance to share their “memories,” too. It’s true, their stories are often rather shapeless—a string of silly situations that go on and on—but their storytelling has such gusto, and the benefits of this practice are so rich, that I’m happy to let them chatter like chipmunks for a while.

These benefits, of course, include expressing their ideas in the minority language, exercising their imagination, and gradually improving their ability to tell a coherent and cohesive story.

I hope you’ll find “made-up memories” a fun and effective addition to your bag of tricks! If so, please leave a comment to share your experience!

How about you? If you gave “made-up memories” a try, how did it go? What sort of tales did you tell?

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