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Getting a Bilingual Child to Feel the Value of the Minority Language

Our homestay guest from Germany
Our homestay guest from Germany

Instilling in a bilingual child the value of his minority language is another key objective for parents. If the child sees little value in the language, then encouraging its development will be a much bumpier road to travel. Conversely, a positive attitude toward the language will naturally help propel its growth.

Regularly talking up the value of the minority language, by citing ways the child’s bilingual ability may benefit his future, can be one important factor in fostering the positive attitude we wish to nurture.

But an intellectual understanding only goes so far, especially with smaller children. Though I’ve always made an effort to stress the value of English (our minority language) to Lulu and Roy, and this has surely had some impact, I suspect what has moved the idea from their minds to their hearts is their direct experience of that value through interactions with other English speakers.

Other children

One possibility, of course, is play dates with other children in your community who speak the target language. Not only can these interactions promote language development and a positive attitude, they may also serve to aid a bicultural child’s quest for identity and a sense of kinship.

Because I tutor other bilingual children at home, there have long been opportunities for my kids to interact in English with others—a fortunate side effect of my work. (When they were younger, they were so eager to connect with these other kids that they often couldn’t contain themselves from barging through the door before the lesson was over. :mrgreen: )

If at all possible, I recommend making the effort to cultivate relationships and situations that will enable your children to interact with other minority-language kids on an ongoing basis.

Homestay guests

My other suggestion is a possibility you may have overlooked: serving as a homestay family for a minority-language visitor to your area. Of course, this will depend a lot on where you live and your home setting, but if this seems feasible, I would encourage the idea. Your local YMCA or other international organization would be good places to start when seeking out a homestay program.

To date, we have hosted three recent high school graduates, all young men of 18. The first, two years ago, was from Hawaii. The second, this past summer, was from Germany. And the third, last weekend, was from Tuvalu, a tiny island nation in the South Pacific. Our guests from Hawaii and Germany stayed with us for about a week, while the young man from Tuvalu was with us for just the weekend. (Since this post, we’ve also hosted a remarkable young man from Papua New Guinea. See his incredible story in Venomous Snakes and the Bilingual Child.)

It’s true, being a homestay family—especially for a week or longer—can be tiring (and a bit costly). Our house, in fact, is pretty small and we don’t really have a spare bedroom—we have to rearrange the room where the kids play, building a bed out of stuffed animals. (No, we give our guests a proper futon and blankets, don’t worry. But the extent of our accommodations probably makes our home more suitable for men—and so we indicate that preference.)

The significant upside, though, is all the memorable interaction that takes place between our family—particularly the kids—and these homestay guests. Eating meals together, playing games, taking short trips—and doing everything in English—is an invaluable opportunity for Lulu and Roy to make use of their minority language and come to a deeper understanding of its value.

Also see A Powerful Way to Inspire a Positive Attitude in Your Bilingual Child.

How about you? In what ways do you nurture the value of the minority language in your children?

3 Responses

  1. Hi Adam

    Thanks for this precious thread. It made me think of becoming a homestay family for an Italian girl as well. Have to check that out with some schools I know.

    As regards nurturing the interest in our minority language, Italian, we sing regularly in the car to and from school, read every evening an Italian fairy-tale or I translate a German story into Italian, now since our little one started reading in German, she has developed a keen interest in having a try with reading Italian words and sentences so I let her read parts of the book I’m reading to her if she wants to give it a try.

    I guess another good way could be a subscription to a cartoon, I will be doing that soon as she loves an Italian character and I think this is a straight-forward way to increase her reading capacity in the minority language.

    We just spent Carnival in Venice, which was a good way for her to hear kids talk in Italian as well after our last trip last October:)) For the summer I’m planning to enroll her in a language camp for a fortnight beating two birds with one stone by attending a CDP in teaching Italian for adults at the same school:)) I’m so excited hopefully it will work out fine…

    We regularly travel to Italy so she’s often exposed to Italian and has an outstanding passive understanding. She also speaks it well, but needs to develop this via full-immersion more… She understands 100% of what people tell her but is a bit hesitant to answer sometimes. My approach has also been and will be not to force her too much.

    She has also loads of Italian CDs and DVDs she adores…

    Finally at the end of the day we shouldn’t forget the fun side of it all and not push our kids too much otherwise acquiring a second or any further languages could just reveal to be counterproductive.

    Unfortunately currently I can’t let her play with Italian kids in our area, since there are only boys and she doesn’t like to idea of playing with them at all, even if two had attended the same kindergarten. We would need a girl-friend for her:))

    That’s all for now. You have a good day!


    1. Heide, thanks so much for your comment! I enjoyed hearing about the many wonderful efforts you’re making for your daughter in Italian. It sounds like you’re both off to a great start on her bilingual journey. Good for you!

      I absolutely agree that the “fun side” of all this is crucial to our success. No matter what we do, I think that’s an important principle to keep in mind. How can we make our efforts both effective and fun?

      Living in Japan, our minority language is English, but I would love for us to join you in Venice for Carnival one day! In fact, my son and I read a book not long ago in which the story took place during Carnival in Venice!

      Thanks again, Heide! Best of luck with everything, including finding a little friend for your daughter! :mrgreen:

  2. Adam,

    I agree! I’m trying to convince my wife to let me set up a German aur-pair (I think that’s how you spell it) which is quite a bit more intrusive, as it’s for months, but I think it’s GREAT language exposure for kids! It’s like a built in third parent who speaks the language. It’s a great way, as you said, to add value to the language as well as get real practice.

    Very good idea, however a little bit too “out there” for some people. I would have a house full of foreigners all the time.


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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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