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Keeping Our Languages Relevant: 10 more activities!

What Languages Are The Neighbors Speaking?

The Modern Language Association provides a great tool on its website that lets you search what languages families are speaking in your neighborhood. When you access the website at, you can enter your state and your county, and it will show you the percentage of people, over the age of 55, who speak a different language other than English at home. For example, in the county we live in, there are 3,482 people who speak French at home.

With this information, parents can promote language clubs for kids in their communities. All it takes to start is a few flyers at the library, grocery store, and local churches. The meetings can take place weekly or biweekly, at a park, a community center, or at someone’s home. Like regular playdates, language clubs can be organized in any number of ways, but the only rule is that only the native language can be spoken! Language clubs allow children to forge meaningful friendships with other native speakers, which is important.

Meet Community Leaders

When you meet successful bilingual citizens in your community, invite them to speak at your children’s school about the benefits of speaking two languages and to discuss their personal experience of growing up bilingual. It’s important for children to see their languages valued and to hear the merits of bilingualism from someone else beside their parents!

World Languages Day

The Center for Language Education and Research, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, offers a free guidebook titled “Celebrating the World’s Languages: A guide to creating a World Languages Day event.” This publication provides a step-by-step guide to plan an exciting event for high school students to highlight the importance of cultural awareness and language skills. Teachers and community groups can download the publication here.

Historical Hotels

If you live near a historical hotel, you will surely find many languages and cultures represented by its staff. With some pre-planning, these historical hotels often offer tours to give visitors a sense of what life was like in the past when famous artists, writers, and politicians stayed as guests. You can check the Historic Hotels of America for more information. At some locations you might even get a ghost tour with stories of the hotel’s haunted history.

The National Guard

Contact the Public Affairs Office at your local Air National Guard to see if you can tour their facilities. There might even be an Air Refueling Wing, which offers tours of a KC-135, their emergency equipment, and a fire station. Ask if they have a staff member who speaks your native language. If they don’t, you can always serve as translator! When we did a tour of our local 157th Air Refueling Wing, I made a list of French vocabulary words that we now get to practice every time the girls take out the photo album we made of that memorable day. I picked up a few words myself, since I had never seen an avion-ravitailleur (tanker) up close before!

The National Museum of Language

The National Museum of Language opened in College Park, Maryland, in May 2008 to promote “a better understanding of language and its role in history, contemporary affairs, and the future.” They offer a wealth of information and resources, from podcasts to papers to online presentations at For children in particular, they offer free online activities in Gaelic, Polish, and Spanish, as well as computer games to practice German, Italian, Spanish, French, and English. Children can even sign up to join the organization Young Linguists of America, sponsored by the museum.

Sister Cities

Sister Cities International is a non-profit organization that brings together U.S. and international cities to increase global awareness, improve business developments, and exchange ideas in different fields including technology and the arts. You can find a directory on their website at to see if your city has an international “sister city.” Many communities organize cultural events and exchanges, giving families a chance to practice their language skills with other natives, as well as spreading cultural awareness in the community. The Sister Cities website allows you to search your city and offers links to cultural programs in your area and contact information for your local “sister cities” chapter.

For example, Asheville, North Carolina, has six sister cities: – San Cristobal de las Casas, and Valladolid in Mexico, Vladikavkaz in Russia, Karpenisi in Greece, and Saumur in France. Asheville has welcomed international musicians, journalists, jewelers, culinary students, basketball players, among other guests.

Although not all languages will be represented at these cultural events, it’s also possible for a community to request a sister city in a particular country or to search through the existing list of international cities looking to make a connection with U.S. sister cities.

International Research on Bilingualism

There is a great deal of international research on bilingualism available, if you would like to read about the subject in your native language. If you have concerns or questions about raising a deaf child with a second language, for example, I would recommend François Grosjean’s research, which is now available in 31 languages at

Current Events

When students start to show an interest in international news, check out, which now offers its news program in 34 languages, complete with audio.

Free Online Language Courses

The British Broadcasting Corporation offers free 12-week online courses for beginners in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, Portuguese, and Greek at You can use the site to supplement your children’s exposure to the language. They even get a certificate at the end when they finish the course! The site also provides a “quick- fix” section with 12 “essential holiday phrases” in 36 languages. There are language tests, dictionaries, and learning games available as well. Children are invited to share their thoughts or personal anecdotes about their language experience in a section called “Your Say.” For most children it’s a great feeling of pride and accomplishment when they see their words on a high-traffic website such as the BBC’s. You can always find out more information by searching the keywords “free online language classes.” to find other options. For example, you can access free German Courses on Deutsche Welle’s website.




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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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“People do not have roots, like plants. A person is mobile, free as the wind, and meant to manifest who they are wherever they happen to be.”

LaDonna Harris, former President of Americans for Indian Opportunity

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Families in Global Transition

On March 3rd to the 6th, Families in Global Transition will host its annual conference in Houston, TX. I’ll be presenting a workshop on raising bilingual children, as well as hosting a breakfast session on Friday morning, and signing books Friday afternoon. It was at FIGT 2007 conference that I got the idea to write Bilingual By Choice – so I”m excited to be back this year with the book finally published! It’s inspiring to meet other parents, mostly global nomads, from all the different sectors – military, international business, government, missionary, education – and hear their stories on crossing cultures. There are families (working for the UN, for example) who relocate with their children every 2 or 4 years and the challenges can be overwhelming. Short-term and long-term consequences. That’s why this conference is so important – you can create a fantastic support network, with people who understand what you’re going through. I’m looking forward to it. Plus I get three days at a hotel, and for a stay-at-home mom, that’s pretty sweet!

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