Archive for October, 2015

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.”

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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