Archive for Vocabulary


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!

Comments (1)

Encouraging language learning


In our family, the dominant language is English. We also speak (some) Spanish with our daughters (6 and 4) and encourage their Spanish-language development as many of their peers, teachers, and caregivers speak Spanish as their primary language and we (my wife better than I) have learned some as we’ve gotten older. My wife also speaks German as a heritage language from her mother’s side, but very infrequently. Do you have advice on whether and how to encourage *both* non-English languages in an English-dominant house?

I’m happy to hear that your children are exposed to Spanish and German! Having friends, teachers, and caregivers who speak Spanish will be a great influence on them and if you and your wife try to learn the language along with them, they will see its value even more and will want to keep it up.

If you can take a trip together to a Spanish-speaking country, of course, that would boost their self-esteem and they would see first-hand the importance of speaking another language. It’s clear from your email that you understand the value of speaking a second language and you are passing on that curiosity and appreciation to your children – which is a huge step.

To give them some consistency, your wife could try to speak German with them at a particular time of day, let’s say reading a couple of stories before bedtime. Books she read as a child, or books that pass on fun cultural traditions or important family values. I hope some of the activities in the last two chapters help you get some ideas on how to share these two languages as a family.


I was wondering if it would help to make it a fun family thing — like “Today is German Day, and let’s speak only in German to each other, ok?” And make it seem like a game. It couldn’t be every day or it wouldn’t work, but maybe it could become scheduled, like every Monday/Wednesday/Friday.

That’s a great way to start! Consistency helps of course, so you could start with once a week and see how you and your family are enjoying it. Then, later on, you could try your schedule of Monday/Wednesday/Friday, if that works for you. Definitely have fun with it but you’ll soon be amazed at how quickly your son picks up words and adds to his vocabulary, it’s pretty amazing! If he needs to use it, he will learn it. So, on that one day a week, you try to make it German-only and he will quickly understand that he needs to speak German to you. Are there any weekly German playgroups in your area? An added bonus to keep you motivated. You can start one pretty easily, by putting up a flyer at your local library and inviting parents with toddlers to practice their German.


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Keep the conversation going

At 4 years old (and 3 months!) Sofiya feels more comfortable expressing herself in English. She had a vocabulary burst during our vacation in Mexico last month with her English-speaking grandparents and, right now, she often chooses to speak to me in English first. I always answer in French (a must!) – sometimes I simply continue the conversation, other times I repeat what she has just said, to give her the vocabulary she needs. It usually takes 2 or 3 exchanges to get the conversation back on track in French. She never shows any frustrations, which is important. This method works for us because it never interrupts the conversation. It’s less abrupt than asking a child point-blank to switch languages, which is potentially damaging (unless it’s done with tact and humor!)

As researcher Traute Taeschner points out in her book The Sun is Feminine: A study on language acquisition in bilingual children, “With time, it becomes harder and harder for the adult to interrupt speech continually, doubling the amount of time needed for each interaction. In the long run, this request is accompanied by anxiety, unhappiness, and dissatisfaction, culminating in an overall state of frustration, and the parent feels he has failed in bringing up his child as a bilingual.”

My goal with Natasha and Sofiya is to make their bilingual language development as smooth and second nature as possible. I know that Sofiya’s hesitation in French is just a phase and my job now is to give her as many opportunities as possible to increase her vocabulary in fun and thoughtful ways geared toward her interests.

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