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How Images Will Stimulate Your Child’s Bilingual Development

Photography exhibitionLast Saturday I took my kids to a photography exhibition at a local art museum—over 400 photographs of all types of subject matter from an association of Japanese photographers. I actually stumbled across the event on Friday while riding my bike home from the library. As I was curious, and the exhibition was free, I popped inside by myself and quickly realized that it offered a prime opportunity to engage the English side of my children’s bilingual ability—even though there wasn’t a word of English used at the venue.

I’ve already touched on the idea of using photos to stimulate the minority language in The Extraordinary (If you haven’t seen that post yet, the list of links there are highly recommended!) Today I’d like to expand on that strategy by encouraging you to take full advantage of the whole range of images that you and your children come across each day—photos and illustrations from the Internet, books, magazines, newspapers, posters, billboards, etc.—in your quest to promote exposure to the minority language.

Let me explain by sharing more about our visit to the art museum on Saturday.

Focus their engagement

When I told my kids, on Saturday morning, that we were going to the art museum, they groaned.

“The art museum again? Let’s go someplace fun!”

In the end, though, I think they did have fun, while eagerly using their English, as I had hoped. It’s very clear to me, however, that the experience wouldn’t have been nearly so successful if I hadn’t helped focus their engagement. In other words, if we had just wandered about the gallery, I suspect they wouldn’t have enjoyed it very much nor would they have stretched their English to the same degree.

The principle here, when it comes to images of all kinds, is keeping conscious of the fact that these can be opportunities to nurture the minority language if we’ll just make the extra effort to focus the child’s engagement.

If nothing else, let this question be your mantra when it comes to the imagery that surrounds you and your children:

“What do you see?”

This simple, open-ended question—along with other questions that will naturally follow—can stimulate, and stretch, your children’s language ability with every image you choose to linger on. And if you make this a regular practice, each small experience will add up over time and ultimately have a sizable impact on their language development.

Of course, I don’t advise going overboard, and demanding a reaction from every image you come across during the day, but if you make this gentle questioning a conscious habit, it can contribute substantially to your long-term goal.

For instance, during your read-aloud time each day (and if you’re not reading aloud to your kids every day, stop right here and make a beeline for The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child), make an even greater effort to “milk” the illustrations on the cover and within the book. Simply start with “What do you see?” and elicit as much conversation as you can. Again, I’m not suggesting that you belabor every page—you want to keep the story flowing, after all—but I think most of us (I’m guilty as well) tend to move too quickly through the picture books we read and don’t take full advantage of the opportunity for interaction presented by the illustrations.

Stay mindful of your goal

Photography exhibitionWhen it came to the art exhibition, though, I was concerned that this sort of questioning just wouldn’t be enough to fully engage them, particularly given the resistance they had already expressed. And so I took it a step further. Because I had glanced at the photos the day before, and noticed that more than a few included an animal, I was able to prepare a simple game that I thought they would enjoy—and would engage their English ability as well.

Giving them each a clipboard, with paper and pencil, I told them that they should walk through the exhibition and write down the name of every animal they find in the photos. If they wrote down at least 5 animals, they would earn a ranking of “Good”; at least 10 animals, “Very Good”; at least 15 animals, “Great”; and up to 20 animals, “Excellent.”

The truth is, I didn’t really know how many animals appeared in the photos, but I guessed there had to be upwards of 20, considering there were over 400 works on display.

As it turns out, they found 35—and earned the hastily-made ranking of “Super-Duper Excellent.” (And though I told them that spelling mistakes were fine for this game, I was pleased to see that the result, in this sense as well, was better than expected.)

One additional benefit was that they decided to work together, as a team, and managed to do this harmoniously—instead of, as is often the case, fighting like furious monkeys.

All this, I think, was the outcome of consciously focusing their engagement—a small investment of time and effort that can produce a significant payoff. As with so much of the bilingual journey, the trick is staying mindful of your long-term goal as you encounter the opportunities presented by each day, each moment.

View these images with your kids

Though I can’t transport you to the exhibition we visited the other day, let me offer other captivating images to view together with your kids. Along with the links below—courtesy of the entertaining site BuzzFeed—I again encourage you to look at these pages at Bored Panda.

The 50 Best Animal Photos Of 2012
Terrific images that can prompt discussion on a range of topics, including more serious themes.

If These 10 Hybrid Animals Really Existed, The World Would Be A Better Place
Fantastic photoshopped creatures that both children and adults will enjoy. (The “hybrid names” are fun, too—maybe try renaming the creatures in your own target language!)

The 7 Creepiest Horse-Animal Hybrids
More amazing “animal hybrids,” this time featuring horses.

The 50 Cutest Things That Ever Happened
This is a hodgepodge of photos, but many of the images are very cute and great for engaging kids in conversation.

The Ridiculously Happy Gecko Test
These happy geckos will put big smiles on your faces! Guaranteed!

How about you? Could you take better advantage of images in nurturing your children’s bilingual ability?

6 Responses

  1. Do you think I need to stop reading if my child order me to stop and play his favorite videos instead? There are times that I continue reading to him even if I know that he is not paying attention.

    1. Raira, if your son seems more interested in videos than books, I think this is a sign that you need new books that will hold his attention. What are his main “passions” at this point in his young life? Get a good stack of books which connect to these passions and you’ll probably find his interest in books and literacy grow. A sizable home library, with a steady stream of books that match the evolving age and interests of your child, will be key to your success.

  2. Adam, enjoyed this one too! “What do you see?” is one of my go-to phrases since my son started saying his first words. Now that he is using verbs too, he is starting to tell me the story of what happens on a page. this is an amazing development to watch. I think this strategy has encouraged him to stop and take in the entire picture in both pages, and to take his time with the books. He truly looks like he savors the pages when I catch him “reading” on his own. As always, great insight!

    1. Melinda, thanks for your comment! Before you know it, he’ll really be reading and that additional daily input is a great boost to language development, especially if you can incorporate the many variations of captive reading. Keep up the good efforts, both of you!

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Welcome to Bilingual Monkeys!

I’m Adam Beck, the founder of this blog and The Bilingual Zoo, a lively worldwide forum for parents raising bilingual or multilingual kids. I’m also the author of the popular books Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability and Bilingual Success Stories Around the World. I’ve been an educator and writer in this field for 25 years as well as the parent of two bilingual children, now 19 and 16. I hope my work can help empower the success of your bilingual journey.

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