001: What Can Monolingual Family Members Do to Take Part in a Child’s Bilingualism

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Listen to the audio in support of this article. I invited a very experienced monolingual parent to give us an advice!DSC_0081

In our family I am the bilingual parent, who on the daily basis teaches kids Russian and Ukrainian, our minority languages. My husband does not speak these languages (well, he knows couple hundred words, especially useful around kids like brush teeth, time to eat and go potty:). But I could not ever say that I raise bilingual children, it is always WE raise bilingual children.

Even without speaking the child’s second language, there are many ways for monolingual adults to be involved in his or her education. This true for both situations:

1) when only one parent is monolingual in the family and the other one is speaking minority language

2) and when both parents are monolingual, but they still raise their children with second language.


1. Understanding and Supporting Family’s Bilingual Goals

Get your partner on board in an active way, not a passive one. Give him/her books about bilingualism and talk through your specific goals. Have them be part of your plan, and be willing to debunk any myths or misconceptions about bilingualism they may have heard.


2. Showing Pride in Your Child’s Abilities and Successes

A monolingual partner can praise a bilingual child for using both his or her languages. Monolingual parents should encourage children to use both their languages, and to remind them how special and unique their abilities are. The more a child is rewarded for demonstrating his or her skills, the more he or she is likely to use them.


3. Start Learning Some of the Child’s Second Language

To learn another language for an adult is a very time consuming task – we are just so busy with life! But parent doesn’t have to try to become bilingual themselves, but they can pick up a little bit of their child’s second language as a way of showing interest. There are “word of the day” e-mail lists in just about every language that you can use to build a small vocabulary. Sign your monolingual family members up for one and have them share their new words with your child!


4. Making Children Aware of the Benefits of Bilingualism

A monolingual parent can still help children take advantage of their bilingualism. Have partners or relatives point out opportunities for children to use their second languages. Plan a trip to a country where their second language is spoken, or find them books and movies from that culture — the adult doesn’t need to speak the language to show the child places where it will be useful!


5. Letting the Child Speak with Other Second-Language Speaking Relatives

It’s important for monolingual parents — especially parents who speak the local majority language — to step back and let the child converse with adults who use his or her secondary language. Encourage your partner to avoid interrupting when the child is conversing with adults in his or her secondary language. It’s important to create those immersive experiences.


6. Trusting Bilingual Conversations

It can be hard to only understand half of a conversation, or to not understand any of a conversation between a child and the other parent. Encourage your partner to be patient and to allow the child to have “privileged” conversations in his or her second language. Parents of bilingual children need to trust that they won’t use their different language skills to keep secrets from each other!


7. Asking Children to Become the Teachers

As children get older, parents can ask them to start sharing some of the languages they’ve learned. A monolingual parent can ask a child to teach him or her a few words or phrases in the child’s second language. This rewards the child (by giving him or her “instructor” status for a minute), and shows interest in his or her skills.


8. Helping to Give the Other Parent or Relatives Free Time

A parent who speaks the majority language can help get the child more exposure to his or her secondary language by taking over some chores from the parent that speaks the secondary language. By taking on other tasks, the parent makes more time in the household schedule for language immersion.


9. Organizing Language Lessons

Not all instruction comes from the parents. A monolingual parent can help set up lessons in town and take the child to and from lessons, or can arrange for online tutoring and help monitor the internet access needed.

As you can see, there are many ways for a parent to help that do not require speaking their child’s second language! Work with your partner to figure out ways you can help each other and help your child’s bilingual progress.

These suggestions will be of use to you and to other family members, whether that is a spouse, a set of grandparents, or other relatives who share your home and your child’s languages.