August 1, 2022

How to Help Your Bilingual Children Maintain Both Languages at Home

Discover fun and easy to use strategies to strengthen your child’s home language. Use the same strategies to support the development of his second language!

Lorena Vidaurre, Ph.D.
Lorena Vidaurre, Ph.D.
A boy and his mom are reading together.

You’ve loved hearing your children sing in two languages, it always brings a smile to your face.

You’re just so proud of your child’s bilingualism and how much they have grown over the last year.

You know that being bilingual is a gift.  Not only do the teachers remind us of this, but you’ve seen the research about all the lifelong benefits it has.

Now, your children are home for the summer and everyone is relaxed and all is good. The children have a well-deserved break. 

But lately, you come home tired from work and notice that they have been zoned out most of the day.  But dinner needs your attention, so you push it aside for now. You’ll have more time to worry about it this weekend. It’s always next weekend but that nagging feeling starts to creep up.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Will they start to forget things? How can we keep it up?” The whole “use it or lose it” comes to mind. The good news is that it doesn't require a ton of time.

You want to help, but you're so tired and don’t have time to do research on top of everything else. 

Maybe you’re wondering, “How do I promote bilingualism at home?” 

There is no right or wrong way, you pick what works for your family.  

You can pick times to speak a certain language. Say you speak Spanish, so you always speak Spanish to your kids and your spouse speaks English. This is commonly known as one person, one language.

Talking to your kids about the importance of being bilingual, you don’t want it to feel like a chore right? 

Try this powerful quote with your child,  

He who speaks two languages ​​has two souls” 

What a powerful discussion this can lead to right?

What do I teach my kids?

Make it age-appropriate. If your child is into sea life, use that as the topic to learn. It does not have to be school-like lessons at all. 

  • Have fun and maybe watch a brief video in the second language 
  • Learn a song about it
  • Learn the names in both languages and discuss why maybe some have similar names
  • Read a Bible story containing sea life such as the story about Jonah or the time when Jesus feeds five thousand people after blessing a boy’s five small loaves and two small fish. You can read/tell the story in the child’s stronger language for the first time.  The second time around, you can read/tell the story  in the less dominant language. Take advantage of the teachable moment to explain what is a miracle and nurture godly character. Get picture books from the library to learn as well.

How do I do this every day? I’m so tired from work.

Don’t make it a chore, be creative. It can be as simple as a greeting. If English is your second language, ask your children to greet you in English and mix it up every day. Ask them to teach you. Try to make each other laugh or use descriptive language about how your child is feeling. 

Find teachable moments throughout the day, every day. 

You know when your child is “not tired” and suddenly thirsty at 10 PM? Encourage them to ask you in the second language for water. 

Remember you are not alone, so many parents go through this. This is a common question parents ask.

That's why we have compiled strategies on how you can help maintain their home language and the second one.

Here are 8 tips for bilingual parents

  1. Bilingual books - one of the easiest and free things to do yet the most powerful. Take your children to the public library and check-out many bilingual books. Besides having the practice, you can also practice with your children. If you are a Spanish speaker, read it to them in Spanish and encourage them to do it in English then take turns the next night. Even when your child can read by themselves, keep reading with them or listen to them.
  1. Audiobooks -  combined with the picture books to follow along. This is a teacher's favorite activity because it coordinates listening to how words are pronounced to the printed words simultaneously. Plus, they have to follow along and be engaged.
  1. Cooking or baking - even if you don’t like to cook, there are little things you can do. There are recipe books with picture directions that preschoolers can follow. Ask your child “what does the picture show? What is the next step?” On the flip side, if English is your second language, have them correct your pronunciation as you read directions out loud.  Give your child rice in a pan and ask if they can or form with their finger the letters that make the sounds you are saying for a word that is actually an ingredient from the recipe. 
  1. Play games together -  Remember the game, Memory? It’s a matching game. Ask, “what is that?” Switch up the language and ask your child “how do you say it in Spanish/English? ”Chutes and Ladders games, ask your child to count in the home or second language as they play. There are so many games you can play even while doing mundane tasks. 
  1. Share folk stories - at home or in the car. You don’t want to scare your children with the “Llorona” but think of a story you heard growing up and share it with your kids. Ask your children to speak in the second language about their favorite story whether it’s a fairytale, or from a book. Let them share and just listen. Try not to always correct them by interrupting but rephrase what your child said in the proper way.   Parent tip-- record a story together in both languages if possible on the phone or iPad voice memo app then it can be the story your child listens to at bedtime. 
  1. Sing - this is easier with younger children. Most of us learned the alphabet by singing it. Sing songs with your child then ask them to sing songs to you in the second language. If they don’t know any, go online to YouTube/KidsTube and search. It can be as simple as songs in Spanish for 3-5 year olds. 
  1. Music - Music is a powerful tool to teach language. Nursery rhymes, modern pop music, and school songs. Aim to hear music in the less dominant language. Many children can sing a song before they speak in conversations. 
  1. Technology - don’t be afraid to embrace technology. I know it seems like it might be too much but in the end, you control how much time they spend on it. Pediatric Doctors recommend up to 1 hour a day of interactive educational viewing. I would personally recommend staying away from uninterrupted viewing. 

How can you promote and maintain your home language while also encouraging English? It's all about balance. 

Let’s say as the parents, your native language is not English and you're wondering how to help.

The above advice still holds true for this situation. 

It’s about finding that balance and being consistent, even 10 minutes a day of practicing the second language could be beneficial.

Ask your child to teach you what they learned in school but in English or another second language.. 

Start singing their favorite songs with them.

Start asking, “How do you say this in English, Spanish or ______( language)?” Young children feel very empowered when they feel like the teacher. 

Tell them you want them to be your English-speaking (or other language) partner after dinner every day so it becomes routine, and then you both become bilingual. 

There are so many resources and many are free online. Such as Starfall, or search on Google ‘free kindergarten websites.’ On Youtube search for ‘Canticos, Rock ‘N Learn, and Jack Hartmann Kids Music’ to name a few.

So now that you know some ways to maintain the home language and practice the second language, which strategies are you going to get started with?