I recently read a book on bilingualism aimed at parents wanting their children to use two (or more) languages at home. It’s called Be Bilingual: Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families by Annika Bourgogne. If you’re looking for some inspiration from someone who has both sound knowledge and practical experience when it comes to language learning, this is a great book to include in your resource collection as you venture forth with plurilingual parenting!
This week, Annika features in a guest post on the topic of supporting biliteracy at home. Enjoy!
Biliteracy at Home by Annika Bourgogne
A year ago, our family was facing a bit of a linguistic challenge. Our youngest daughter who was almost 8 at the time, did not want to pick up a book to read. She was able to, but chose not to. And since she is bilingual, this description applied to reading in both her languages: French and Finnish.
My husband has always spoken to our daughters in his native French, a language that despite the worldwide prestige that it enjoys has been in a definite minority position in Finland. The language spoken nearly everywhere around us is Finnish and it has required a lot of effort from my husband to reinforce our children’s minority language to the point that today they are fluent in both their languages.
We know from experience with our oldest daughter, a teenager now, that biliteracy has played a big part in the development of her overall language skills. Reading has helped fix in her mind the vocabulary that she hears in everyday conversations (which – let’s face it – is not as rich and varied as we parents would like to think!) and fill in the gaps that she has, especially in French, which she is less exposed to. Written text teaches proper grammar and sentence structure (yes, we cut corners with this too!) and is also a wonderful way to access their two cultures.
So here we were, equipped with the knowledge that reading in both languages was very beneficial, but faced with a child who didn’t want to do it in even one language. As forcing her might have been very counter productive, we decided to go about it in another way: helping her find her reason to read. Here are a few things that we found helpful:
1) Reading to her every day. There is no age at which you have to stop reading to your child and especially with biliteracy this is very important. Your child might not yet be able to read age-appropriate books in her second language, but you can help by reading them together. Not only does this add to your child’s vocabulary the same way, but also helps associate reading with an enjoyable activity. Audiobooks or asking the older sibling to read can help when you’re really too busy (been there!) but do take advantage of the times when you need to wait together: at the doctor’s or at big brother’s soccer practice!
2) Looking for easy books in both languages for her to read on her own. We also made a cardboard bookshelf on the wall with one shelf to write down the Finnish books and another for the French books that she read on her own. We used her outgoing personality to our advantage and suggested taping her reading and asking questions in French that we then shared with other bilingual children.
3) Putting a biliterate twist into everyday life whenever we could. We wrote secret messages to her in both languages (she loved this!) and posted riddles and jokes on the bathroom wall. We swapped books with other bilingual families and subscribed our daughter(s) to French children’s magazines.
4) Making writing fun. After reading, the next step in biliteracy is writing. In addition to the traditional postcards and emails to the French family, we looked for writing apps on tablets, suggested that our daughter make (and write down) a menu for Friday night dinner and got her a lovely travel diary where the language choice was gently guided by Finnish flags on certain pages and French ones on others. We’ve also played “school” at home where we parents were the students and made the most atrocious spelling mistakes in two languages! We had a lovely little teacher who couldn’t believe – and was only to happy to correct – our mistakes! We also regularly played scrabble in two languages – extra points for the words in the weaker language!
A year later, Sara is about to turn 9 next month and after reading the two first Harry Potter books in Finnish this summer, has 30 pages left of the third one in French. She has found her why in reading, and the how followed very nicely – in both languages!
About the Author
Annika Bourgogne is a language teacher who lives in Helsinki, Finland with her French husband and two daughters. Passionate about family bilingualism, she is always is looking for new ways to combine real-life parenting with the latest research on the subject. Her book Be Bilingual – Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families, came out in December 2012. You can read more about Annika’s book and new projects on her website and Facebook page.