10 Activities to Promote Bilingualism and Cultural Awareness

“Being Bilingual” Essay Contest

The National Association for Bilingual Education organizes an annual writing contest for bilingual students in grades 3 to 5, 6 to 8, and 9 to 11. (Deadline is November 1st, 2015.) The winners in each category get their essays published in NABE’s conference catalog, which is distributed to more than 3,000 people, and an all-expense paid trip with one parent to attend the annual conference. Your children can read the entries of past winners and get inspired to share their thoughts on growing up bilingual. Encourage your child to send in his submission.  You can also check out other contests sponsored by NABE, including nominating your favorite “Bilingual Teacher of the Year.” http://www.nabe-conference.com/awards.html

Put on a Puppet Show

As with most of these activities there are many variations depending on how much time and resources you can commit and how creative the family feels. A puppet show brings the family together and lets everyone participate at their own language level. If the parents put on the show, they can recount stories that expose the cultural values they want to pass on to their children. When the kids put on the puppet show, they practice their storytelling skills in their heritage language in a creative and collaborative way. Children can make their own puppets and decorate them with traditional clothing. They can use favorite storylines from books they’ve read, to guide them along. Putting on a puppet show takes some effort and preparation, but it’s guaranteed fun for the whole family.

“Speak Your Languages” DVD

I’ve been told that when it comes to teenagers, the opinions and testimonies of complete strangers can sometimes have more impact than their own parents’ point of view. The Highline School District in Seattle, Washington, knew just what to do. With more than 18,000 enrolled students who speak more than 80 languages, they decided to put together a seven-DVD set that focuses on the lives of successful bilingual professionals. The series is called Speak Your Languages and can be requested through your library. It is invaluable for teenagers to understand that learning two languages will have huge consequences on their personal and professional lives.


Dr. Jean-Marc Dewaele, a well-known researcher on trilingualism, once said in an interview that he likes to play Scrabble with his daughter, who speaks English, Dutch, and French. If they can do it with three languages, we should be able to handle bilingual Scrabble! The game is now offered in 29 languages. There’s even a game called “My First Scrabble,” for children 3 to 6 years old, and “Scrabble Junior,” for 5- to 10- year- olds. If you prefer, Monopoly is also a great board game to play as a family, and it is now available in 27 languages. Most international editions use the country’s currency and specific cultural sites, which makes the game even more educational.

Poetry Night

One important benefit of being bilingual is to be able to enjoying the literature of both cultures and get a glimpse of different beliefs, behaviors, and lifestyles. In many cultures, poetry is a central part of people’s lives. If you have creative souls in your house, you can organize your own poetry recital for the family. Each member has to choose one poem in the heritage language, learn it by heart, and present it on Poetry Night. Children can also write their own poetry, which that can be saved in a special family book. Learning to read, memorize, and recite poetry helps children become more sensitive to the particular nuances of their heritage language. This activity can start with simple poetry and develop into more complex pieces as children get older.

Where Does That Piece Go?

This activity is great for a rainy day or when your child is sick. Find a puzzle of a landmark from your country, and sit down together to tackle it. If you can’t find the right puzzle, either in stores or online, some companies will make a puzzle directly from a photo. If you both have visited the landmark, you can share memories of your trip, or you can talk about the history of the site and its cultural relevance. This activity not only gets your child to practice her heritage language with you and find out something about her culture, but it also teaches patience and team work!

Map It!

Put a map on the wall and let your children mark each town and/or country they’ve traveled to. Help them find where their parents were born and where they were born. You can also put pictures of relatives over the areas where they live. You can mark all the countries around the world where people speak your heritage language, to show your children the value of learning it. Each time you look at the map, you can focus on a different theme, such as international landmarks, or indigenous animals, or national sports. Look at your children’s hobbies and interests and try to find a way to give them an international angle. For example, if they like soccer, try to locate the birthplace of the most famous soccer players around the world.

Recommended Reading

If your child is in high school, I would like to recommend getting him a copy of Coming of Age in a Globalized World: The next generation  by J. Michael Adams and Angelo Carfagna, published by Kumarian Press. It offers a concise review of what globalization is and explains why cultural awareness is key for today’s students. As the authors explain, “To survive and succeed in this environment, individuals must understand the driving forces of globalization and the trends that will shape their lives as global citizens.”

Word Origins

If you have a particularly inquisitive child, or just a knack for making everything sound interesting, there is something to be said for studying word origins to better understand the structure of a language. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary offers over more than 140,000 entries describing word origins. You can request the dictionary at your local library.

Dictation Can be Fun! (Really!)

Some parents might cringe when they think back on this “old-fashioned” teaching strategy, but before you dismiss it, try it with your children. They might surprise you. It can be a calming exercise for a restless kid. As an ESL student, I loved dictations. It seemed much safer than speaking! Writing skills in the heritage language are often overlooked, but they open up a whole new world. How you approach this exercise will make all the difference, so let your child choose a beautiful pen and notebook, give her lots of praise, and keep the mood light and stress-free. Depending on her learning style and personality, she might just take to it!

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Bilingualism and Politics

Dear Virginie,
This summer I have become “a research junkie” on raising children bilingually and I just love your book most of all : ). You have a wonderful writing voice that transmits the informative/research side while complementing it with a very loving motherly voice, sensitive to the varying linguistic complexities present.
I have a question and seek your expert advice (on my linguistic complexity!)
I am a native English speaker, with near-native French. I am a French teacher here in the U.S. I adore French and feel it comes natural to me, enough
that I am comfortable speaking it at home about the everyday things with my children (I spent over a year in France where I lived with a French family with kids (babies and older plus years of exposure/study/practice/teaching etc)
My husband is a native Farsi speaker, but he has not transmitted that language fully to the children (he did not do the bilingual thing–did not have the energy or time to fulfill the commitment and as English is the language at home…). I am a conversant Farsi speaker, and our immediate community is largely Farsi speaking. While obviously valuable for us (!), this language is not as close to my heart as French! The kids have a solid passive knowledge of Farsi, but are not thrilled about attending classes and the like. That is at a standstill right now (they are just passively learning).
I have chosen to focus my efforts in French/English….however there is one other complication, as we are practicing Muslims I do not necessarily feel welcome in France, due to the politics and islamaphobia there. Does it make sense for me to devote my time and energy to teaching my children a language which although close to my heart as a mother & teacher, may not offer them anything in their future? Am I being super negative here? What is your take on this situation?
Thanks for reading my long letter and your attention on my linguistic problem!
p.s. I have 5 children, ages: 14, 11, 8, 6, 3. We are numerous enough that for me it is worth taking a solid stand and committing myself to this for their childhoods and beyond…

Hello Valerie,

Hope you had a nice summer with your family – Having just returned from France, I have to agree with you that the current administration there has a lot to learn about diversity and acceptance. I think because of the current islamophobia, (here and there actually!) it seems even more important for you to teach your children how to speak French! With their language skills they have a chance to be a part of the solution when they grow up. They will be able to bridge cultures and have the communication skills to solve cross-cultural problems – We need more globally-minded youngsters and you’re on your way with your 5 children! So, yes, I definitely encourage you with French, English and Farsi. What a gift!
Thank you by the way for the kind comments about Bilingual By Choice. I’m now working on my second book but this time it’s a travel guide on French and Spanish Catalonia, following in the footsteps of 20th century artists. The research has been fun!

Have a great back-to-school –

Take care,

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Check out these great sites for resources

Hello, I appreciated your comments on reading. Living in the US, we have had a lot of success reading to our sons in French since (really) the day they were born. They have a great vocabulary in French and I am sure a lot of it is due to the exposure to reading in the minority language that they have received.

I wanted to let you know that I discuss your book in a guest post at Multilingual Mania, also a great blog on bilingualism (http://multilingualmania.com/linguistic-resources-for-bilingual-parents/). My own site is http://bloggingonbilingualism.com/ and I mention it there as well. Thanks for sharing your ideas!


Thank you Eve. You have a great site – and thanks for discussing the book! There is so much useful information out there – (both books and articles online) for parents raising bilingual children, I’m thinking there is no excuse now – we can’t fail or give up!!

I see on your blog that you’re planning a trip to France – We’ll be heading over there this summer as well, to see family. I can’t wait to have the girls immersed in French, playing and telling stories with their cousins. It’s going to be great! Bon voyage to you and your family.

Take care,

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Last month, the girls and I took a road trip together to Montreal, Canada – which is only 5 hrs. away. I spent my college years there and have always loved the city. But now I appreciate the exposure to French so much more! (… and always the pastries, cafes, bookstores….) It’s a great way for the girsl to hear and speak French and a lot less expensive than packing up and flying to France!

As I packed their little suitcases with new books to bring home, I made a pledge to read to them every day. We have books all around the house, but I don’t read to them in French every day and I should. I never got into the routine of reading books to the girls at bedtime, like many parents do. I prefer to read to Natasha and Sofiya during the day, when I’m more alert, more patient, and ready to answer their questions. But that also means that reading was always done at random times during the day, and that was part of the problem. I needed a fixed time for reading. To make it a priority. So now I read to them after lunch. We sit on the couch, we take our sweet time through all the stories, while they digest! And then, they’re nice and mellow, ready for a nap. (We love our naps here!)

Research shows that having access to books in your heritage language can really make a huge difference when trying to raise bilingual children. Granted it can be tricky to find books in some lesser-known heritage languages. But don’t give up! This is where you need to broaden your support network. Ask friends and family to get involved. The Internet obviously offers a lot of sites that sell books in different languages, including the great company Culture For Kids and Asia For Kids.

Here are some ideas on how we can promote reading:

  1. We can read baby books in both languages to our children long before they can read
  2. We can make family trips to the library. Most libraries – if they don’t have books in your native language – have at least picture books of most countries around the world
  3. We can expose our children to books we read when we were young
  4. We can put books by their beds
  5. We can offer them books as presents. (And ask friends to do the same!)
  6. We can ask lovely relatives to mail us any new discoveries from overseas
  7. We can serve as role models by reading books, magazines, and newspapers in their presence
  8. We can support our local libraries. One easy contribution is to donate books in your native language after your children have outgrown them.

 It’s important to remember that the more children read, the better they will develop their academic skills. According to well-known linguist, Professor Stephen Krashen, “There is now overwhelming research showing that free voluntary reading is the primary source of our reading ability, our writing style, much of our vocabulary and spelling knowledge, and our ability to handle complex grammatical constructions.”

I’m ready to read to Natasha and Sofiya every day – Let’s also support our schools and public libraries to make reading quality books available to all children!

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I very much enjoyed Bilingual by Choice. I am expecting my first baby and I cannot wait to meet him! I am German, my husband is from the United States. We currently live in the US. We speak both English and German (but his German is a little rusty and I speak English with an accent). We want our child to know both languages but are unsure how to address the situation in the home. I will speak German, he will speak English. But what should we do when we speak in front of our baby? Should I speak German to my husband and my husband answers in English or would that be too confusing?

I’m glad you enjoyed the book! And I’m glad you’ve made the commitment to use your native language with your baby. First and foremost, the language situation at home has to feel very natural. What language do you and your husband speak to one another now? That will most likely be the language you use after the baby is born. Speaking German to your husband and him answering in English will quickly sound awkward and, unfortunately, will only teach your child that he or she doesn’t have to answer you in German!

But you’re lucky to have a spouse who speaks your native language. When you want a boost in German exposure, you can have “German-only” days at home, which is great practice for your spouse. In addition, it will show your child, as he or she grows, that the whole family values German, which will go a long way in your goal of raising a bilingual child. Best of luck and congratulations!

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Great news!

I’m excited to announce that Bilingual By Choice: Raising Kids in Two (or more) Languages has been selected as a finalist for the Book of The Year award (in the parenting category) by ForeWord magazine, with the winners (top 3) to be announced at BookExpo America in New York City on May 26th. 


Very cool.

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Francois Grosjean

Hello, Thank you for citing Life with Two Languages. You may be interested in my new book, Bilingual, which is coming out currently in North America. Here is the publisher’s description of it: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/GROBIL.html?show=catalogcopy

Good luck with your blog and my very best wishes to you.

François Grosjean

Dear Professor Grosjean,

It’s great to hear from you. I’ve just ordered your new book, Bilingual, and I look forward to reading it! Your research has greatly inspired my work. Hope your health is good. Take care,


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