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Why Saying a Lot of Dumb Things to Your Bilingual Kids Is So Valuable to Their Language Development

February 17, 2016

Why Saying a Lot of Dumb Things to Your Bilingual Kids Is So Valuable to Their Language Development

Saying dumb things to your bilingual children can actually be very smart.

At dinner the other day I was asking my fifth-grade daughter about her weekly afterschool club at the local elementary school my kids attend. (These club activities are an option from the fourth grade so my third-grade son will be able to take part soon.) The conversation started off something like this…

ME: How was dodgeball club today?

LULU: Fun.

ME: I’m glad you had fun.

(Lulu silently chews a mouthful of rice.)

ME: I bet you like dodgeball club better than chess club. (Last time she had no choice but chess club.)

LULU: Yeah.

(She quietly sips her tea.)

ME: What’s better about dodgeball club?

LULU: It’s fun.

I think you get the picture. As my kids grow older, these conversations about their daily life seem to be shrinking in scope and detail, and shortchanging their engagement in the minority language.

But here’s the thing: In my own odd way, I try not to let our conversations end there. If the talk about daily life is dry and unproductive, I instinctively begin saying dumb things instead.

“My clubs aren’t dumb!”

Let me give you a good example by continuing with the second part of the conversation I had with my kids about club activities at school. Although the conversation could have quickly died after my first attempts with my daughter fizzled out, in this instance I was able to save it—and transform it into playful, productive banter—by taking the topic in a very different direction…

ME: I should volunteer to lead one of those club activities.

LULU: You’re not a teacher.

ME: You don’t have to be a teacher. The leader of the chess club was some guy from the neighborhood, right?

ROY: You’re not good at chess!

ME: I wouldn’t do a chess club.

LULU: What club would you do?

ME: I would do… I would do… The Treasure Hunters Club!

ROY: What’s that?

ME: We dig for treasure! The kids bring shovels and we dig up the schoolyard—

LULU: You can’t do that!

ME: Yes, we can! I’ll talk to the principal! He’d be so happy if we found some treasure. I’d even give him some gold coins—

LULU: (laughing) You can’t dig holes in the schoolyard!

ME: We’ll fill them back up after we find the treasure.

ROY: What if you don’t find any?

ME: It’s a big playground—there’s got to be treasure under the ground somewhere. It might take a few months, but we’ll find it! It’s called perseverance, my friends. If you just dig long enough and deep enough, you’re sure to find treasure!

LULU: But what about during recess? Kids will be falling into the holes! They could break their leg!

ME: That’s a good point… Well then… I’ll start another club! The Emergency Rescue Club! After the Treasure Hunters Club finds the treasure, the Emergency Rescue Club will run out there to rescue the kids that fell into the holes during recess!

LULU: But they might be in the holes for months!

ROY: With broken legs!

ME: I know that, and that’s why the Emergency Rescue Club will run out there as fast as they can. I’ll need some fast runners for that club. How about you, Roy?

ROY: I won’t be in your dumb clubs!

ME: My clubs aren’t dumb! Finding treasure and rescuing kids with broken legs isn’t dumb! Lulu, which club do you want to be in?

The beauty of imaginary talk

Okay, Roy is right: My clubs are dumb. But that’s the whole point, really: By “saying dumb things”—imaginary talk that appeals to a child’s keen sense of fun and absurdity—an engaging conversation can be created out of thin air. These playful conversations not only benefit the bond between parent and child, they can generate greater amounts of exposure in the minority language on a regular basis.

And the beauty of imaginary talk extends even beyond that because access to such conversation is limited only by our willingness to be silly. As much as I urge parents to proactively speak to their kids about the real world—about the actual events of daily life—the plain fact is that this source of conversation is inherently limited because the experiences of our lives are limited. (And moreover, as I’ve mentioned, older children can grow less talkative about their lives than they were at a younger age—when you sometimes wish their little motoring mouths had an “off” switch. :mrgreen: )

But there are no limits at all to imaginary talk! And because children naturally find it fun and appealing, it can serve as a “lure” for engaging even older kids in conversation, and thus productively advancing their language development. When it comes to our children’s progress, the input from imaginary talk is just as valuable to language acquisition as exposure about the real world—and, in fact, could even be richer in some ways since this talk can potentially include words and concepts not found in the child’s daily experience.

A key tactic for language development

To me, “saying dumb things” as a mindful and playful habit is a key tactic for maximizing a child’s language development and constitutes one of my own core “secrets” for the success I’ve experienced with my students and my kids. Because I believe such imaginary talk can be so productive, as well as so beneficial to the parent-child bond, I’ve touched on this vital idea in several other posts, too, and I encourage you to read them.

VIDEO: With Bilingual Kids, There’s a Madness to My Method

VIDEO: Adam Beck Goes Bonkers in Interview, Reveals “Crazy Secret” for Bilingual Success

How Blaming Your Kids For Things They Didn’t Do Can Boost Their Language Ability

Using Made-Up Memories to Engage Bilingual Kids

Be Very Serious. Be Very Playful. The Bilingual Journey Demands Both.

As I stress in Thought Experiment: What Will Your Children Remember Most About You?, when we’ve finally left this life behind, the overriding impression that our children will likely hold of us in their hearts is the playfulness of our spirit. In this light, imaginary talk not only nurtures bilingual ability through the years of childhood, it fosters golden memories for many decades to come.

How about you? Do you say “dumb things” to your kids? Tell us about it!

1 Mayken February 17, 2016 at 7:17 pm

Adam, you’re cracking me up with your crazy ideas! I could hear your voice when I read the conversation, with all your over-enthusiasm thrown in. (Sometimes I pity your kids for having to put up with you. No, just kidding.)

I’m at a similar stage with my daughter these days, I try to make the questions I ask her about her day interesting, or ask for very specific things, but maybe I should just resort to crazy stuff like you do. But I’m afraid I don’t have a quite as vivid imagination as you do!

Cheers from Paris,



2 Adam February 18, 2016 at 6:00 am

Mayken, thanks—I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes, you might try a few quirky questions about your daughter’s school day and see what happens!

While it’s possible to suggest that something is true when it isn’t (like “I heard a friendly kangaroo was jumping around on the playground today!”), introducing such situations as hypothetical ideas can be just as productive, and may make it easier for some children to play along (“What would you do if a friendly kangaroo started jumping around on the playground?”).

Have fun, you two!


3 Ginie February 18, 2016 at 7:25 am

Adam, you are a genius and that is very inspiring for me… My daughter is only 16 months and we talk to just about every creature (mainly birds & trees) on the way to daycare but I can’t wait to engage with her in crazy talk like this!!!

Thank you!!


4 Adam February 18, 2016 at 8:32 am

Ginie, thanks for your comment! It sounds like you and daughter are having (and will continue to have) a lot of productive fun together!

Yes, promoting interactions with the living things around us is another fun and effective way to increase our use of the minority language. This post is a prime example…

It’s a Scientific Fact! Baby Praying Mantises Can Get Your Child Reading More in the Minority Language!


5 Richard February 18, 2016 at 3:44 pm

I often say dumb things to my seven-year-old! He usually tells me to shut up and stop being so dumb (in Italian)! I’ll persevere though!


6 Adam February 18, 2016 at 7:57 pm

Richard, kids may act as if they don’t appreciate our dumbness, but I think they secretly enjoy it. After all, silly is always better than boring!


7 Laura February 19, 2016 at 7:14 am

Good inspiration and great ideas. My son would follow my dumb imaginary conversations but he would not do it in the minority language. I would be the only one talking it and he’d do it in the majority language. But it’s a good idea nevertheless even to understand what goes on at school.


8 Adam February 19, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Laura, I don’t know the details of your situation, but hopefully your son will come to join you in saying dumb things in the minority language if you stay proactive in providing language exposure, day by day.


9 Stephanie February 28, 2016 at 1:57 am

I have a question, a big one. I work in a school where a great majority of students are from Spanish speaking families. A father recently told me that a student’s mom only speaks and understands Spanish and the child only speaks and understands English, causing frustration for mom. I am wondering what I can suggest. I provided several ideas, but he kind of shot them down. I really want for the child to feel more confident in his language of origin at home. He has a lot of disabilities, they impact language so I am not expecting him to actively study Spanish. I suggested using pictures to facilitate things. Make a regular date for mom and child to watch a preferred TV show in Spanish to facilitate some fun exchanges, books in Spanish (easy since the child really cannot read), singing songs and rhymes in Spanish. Once a message is figured out, the student might teach mom a key vocabulary word, then draw it, get help writing it and keeping a picture dictionary of sorts. I don’t know what else to suggest. Can you guide me towards any practical resources. This is not an uncommon situation, but this case is particularly frustrating since dad is often away and not there to translate or facilitate, and since it appears that mom is not willing to come up with ideas or to learn some English. I have to think that she must have some English, I know they have lived in the states for at least 15 years. I wonder if it is a lack of confidence mixed with lack of knowledge. There are free classes, we have offered them at school, they are in the community, but she is not interested in taking advantage of this resource. I know that from my end, I have to focus more on the student anyways. Sorry so long.


10 Adam February 28, 2016 at 8:31 pm

Stephanie, I commend your desire to lend support to this student. As I’m not familiar with the details (including the age of the child, the disabilities present, and the actual language ability of the boy and his mother), my best suggestion is to arrange a meeting with the entire family to discuss the situation and determine some concrete steps (like the ideas you mentioned, and more) that the family and the school are willing and able to pursue to improve these conditions for everyone concerned. In order to move forward, it seems to me that the school needs a clearer understanding of the situation and the parents must display a greater willingness to take productive action. And these essential aspects of the problem, along with a suitable “action plan,” can only be addressed through frank discussion.


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