If you’ve been following this blog, you know that one of my best weapons for promoting exposure to the minority language is my endless urge to say dumb things to my students and my kids.
It’s true, and I detailed this idea in one of the most popular posts at this site: Why Saying a Lot of Dumb Things to Your Bilingual Kids Is So Valuable to Their Language Development. The truth is, the more you make a habit of saying dumb things—and generating playful conversations that can engage your children in the target language—the more exposure you’ll create in that language and the more effective that input will be. Do this regularly, over the course of childhood, and such efforts at “imaginary talk” can have a powerful impact not only on the progress made in your children’s language development but also on the joy you experience together in your relationship.
Here’s a very clear example, from last Sunday. Let me try to recreate the conversation, while adding little notes of explanation, as needed.
“What an exciting day!”
See this photo? It shows a store in Hiroshima that sells used clothing; it’s called King Family.
So on Sunday morning, before Lulu and Roy have come to the kitchen table for breakfast, my wife shows me a flyer, touting a big sale at King Family, and says she wants to go. I grunt in agreement (I don’t like shopping for clothes) and she leaves the room to start a load of laundry.
Moments later, my kids sit down at the table with me and begin to eat their breakfast.
Let’s pick up the conversation from there…
LULU (12 years old): Daddy, are we going somewhere today? (This is typically the first question she asks on a Saturday or Sunday morning.)
ME: Yes, we’re going somewhere special. (Let me stress that if I had simply said, “Yes, we’re going shopping for clothes,” all of the conversation to come—and all the engaging language exposure it generated—would never have occurred. And not only that, it would have been instantly demotivating for my son, who doesn’t like shopping for clothes, either. )
LULU (eagerly): Where?
ROY (9 years old): Yeah, where?
ME: Oh, it’s a very special place. (Stoking a child’s curiosity by playfully withholding information and building suspense is another good tactic for fueling engagement.)
LULU: Tell us!
ROY: I bet it’s boring!
ME: Oh, it’s probably the least boring place you can imagine. We’re going…to…(Long pause to milk the moment)…a palace!
LULU: What? What are you talking about?
ROY: We’re not going to a palace!
ME: Yes, we are. Mommy said so. She said we’re going to see the king’s family. And the king’s family must live in a palace!
(They look confused; I babble on with great excitement.)
ME: This is a really special day, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not every day you get to meet the king’s family! We’re so lucky!
LULU (now catching on): Daddy, that’s a store! King Family is a store that sells clothes!
ROY: I don’t like shopping for clothes!
ME: Yes, let’s talk about clothes. It’s important that we wear our best clothes to meet the king’s family. We have to make a good impression, right? Lulu, that’s a lovely blouse. I’m sure the king will be very pleased. And Roy, smart idea about the soccer shirt—
ROY: It’s just an old soccer shirt.
ME: Yes, but it’s your best old soccer shirt, right?
(They grin at this silliness, a good sign of engagement.)
ME: Now listen, when we get to the palace, we have to bow when we meet the king and his family. And Lulu, when you meet the prince, you put out your hand in a very dainty way, like this (I demonstrate), and let him kiss it, okay?
LULU (giggling): NO!
ME: When the prince sees your nice blouse, he might even want to marry you and then we can all move into the palace together! You said you wanted to live in a bigger house, right? Well, I bet their palace is huge!
LULU (laughing): Daddy, you’re so eccentric! (“Eccentric” is a word I taught her the day before.)
ME: Roy, you could even play soccer with the beautiful princess on their big soccer field behind the palace. Think of that!
ROY (smiling): I’m not playing soccer with the princess!
ME: Wow, what an exciting day! Meeting the king’s family and moving into their palace! We better start packing, people!
Input of both quantity and quality
You see, when you pursue this sort of “imaginary talk” with your kids, you can create a playful conversation that produces fun and effective language exposure. (Lulu even actively used a new word—”eccentric”—that she had just learned.)
Now multiply this conversation by the thousands of similar odd conversations I’ve enjoyed with my kids over the years and it becomes clear that, compared to sticking solely to conversation about “real life” (which is encouraged, too, of course!), the additional use of “imaginary talk” can generate significantly more language input. Unlike “real life,” with its inherently limited experiences each day, “imaginary talk” has no limits whatsoever! There are always things to talk about, if you’re simply willing to be a bit silly!
Let me emphasize, too, that such conversations are supremely effective not only in the potential quantity of input they offer, but also in their quality: The playful nature of this talk connects very naturally, very powerfully, to the child’s own innately playful spirit, thus producing positive and productive engagement. Meanwhile, like any other time you actively play with your children, these experiences greatly enrich the parent-child bond as well.
A strategic habit
How can you make “imaginary talk” a larger part of your daily efforts? To create this sort of strategic habit, the first step involves your willingness to be a little sillier, a little more eccentric—but eccentric is a lot better than boring, both for promoting language development and nurturing your relationship with your kids.
In my case, along with my obvious eccentricity (which I happily acknowledge), I had plenty of opportunity to exercise “imaginary talk” over the years I was a full-time teacher, working with children on a daily basis. In this way, with my students and then with my kids, it became a reflex, a habit, and it’s now something I do naturally in my interactions with children, without even really thinking about it.
Depending on your personal nature, the impulse for this “imaginary talk” may have gotten buried beneath all the “maturity” of being an adult, but I can assure you that you had ready access to this playful spirit as a child and you can access it more regularly again, if you mindfully choose to make this your aim. And if you do, if you decide to say dumb things to your kids more proactively, and turn this tactic into a productive habit, you will surely reap the rewards it offers and ultimately experience even greater success and joy on your bilingual journey.
For much more on the use of playful talk as a productive strategy (including further examples of funny conversations with my kids), please see these posts…