Tag Archives: Learning

Monolingual parents and bilingual children?

Many parents wonder if they can succeed in raising their children bilingually. Most of the studies of the ’60-’80 about bilingualism were about monolingual parents who wanted their children to become bilingual. Some parents would share the same mothertongue and the community language would be L2, in some other studies only one of the parents would share the community language etc..

I think that defining a monolingual parent becomes more and more difficult because talking “only” one language, i.e. being monolingual, nowadays is almost impossible – at least for all those who don’t have English as mothertongue*. Everyone studies another language at some point, and will acquire some kind of knowledge in it. Therefore, being exclusively monolingual parents, living in a continuously monolingual context is almost impossible. Especially if we count dialects as languages. – If we agree with François Grosjean‘s definition of a bilingual:

“Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives”

we can define accordingly a monolingual:

“Monolinguals are those who use only one language (or dialect) in their everyday lives”.



Every family raising bilingual children need a language plan. There are several strategies that can work for monolingual families or monolingual parents. In a (almost) monolingual situation, the strategy would look like this:

                       Parent 1            Parent 2                  Community             

 Strategy 1   Language A      Language A              Language A

Parents would speak their native language and the child would associate the second language (not indicated in this figure) with a certain place or certain person, such as special classes or trips to visit relatives or friends. With an environment not providing a regular input to the child, the parents would need to make more effort in providing exposure to the second language (cfr. playgroups in the other language, language lessons, care givers who talk the other language – and DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, books etc.).

Monolingual parents who want to raise their children bilingually but are not able to support this at home, need to reach out for help and provide a regular input from someone else. With the help of technology this is surely possible and I know many families who succeded, but in the long run, either one parent (or both) would learn the other language and the parents would need to offer regular full immersion programms to their children – during holidays etc. – to foster the learning.

If one of the parents has the knowledge of another language, but the family lives in a Language A community, one of the parents would always address the child in his or her non-native, second language.

                           Parent 1           Parent 2            Community             

Strategy 2        Language A      Language A      Language A

                            Language B

These first two strategies require a special effort and commitment from the parents to provide regular input in Language B, with the advantage that in Strategy 2, one parent would be the regular dialogue partner for the child. On the long run, the child (and the parent) may need more people to share this language with. Playgroups, peers, collaborative teachers and family who either share the same language or at least support the bilingual upbringing can be very beneficial.


If both parents have the same mothertongue but live abroad, the scenario can look like this:

                       Parent 1           Parent 2              Community             

Strategy 3    Language A     Language A         Language B

Both parents would talk Language A to the child and leave the second language (B) to the environment and school. Usually, parents in this situation would learn language B at some point and would probably also be able to understand and support their child during his learning process.

When one of the parents has some knowledge of the community language, this could be the scenario:

                       Parent 1             Parent 2                   Community             

Strategy 4   Language A        Language A              Language B

                        Language B

One parent would always talk the community language (B) with the child, while the other parent would be consistent talking the other one. Language A being the minority language in this case, parents would need to support the child by offering other opportunities to speak language A (with peers, playgroups etc.).

For all the scenarios listed here above, it would be beneficial for the bilingual child if parents would agree on a language planning, be confident, creative, commited and consistent – and flexible, if the language situation within the family changes due to a move abroad or else.


My parents adopted strategy 3 in raising my sister and me bilingually: with German as mothertongue at home and Italian as the local language. They both learned Italian too and talked other languages (English, French and local German dialects). I can say that they succeeded: my sister and I are both bilinguals talking up to 6 languages and raising our children as bilinguals too.



Sign in Switzerland's four official languages

Sign in Switzerland’s four official languages (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


* I’ll discuss the difference with English mothertongue speakers in another post.


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8 things to say to a bilingual

Bildschirmfoto 2012-08-27 um 11.53.00This post is somehow a response in a dialogical way, to the brilliant post by Rita Rosenback “7 things you should not say to a bilingual child“.

I did experience some of the 7 things she listed up and I totally agree with her that “children can be (very) sensitive about almost anything to do with themselves”, no matter if monolingual, bilingual, multilingual. It’s just a fact. I think that also young adults and some adults feel annoyed by the kind of questions she mentions. Therefore I decided to figure out questions that would not bother a bilingual or multilingual, indipendently if it’s a child or an adult.

1. “Did you live in all the places you know the language from?”

Multilinguals are often also multicultural and they usually grow up very open minded. Therefore questions like “Where do you come from?” seem too restrictive and some consider them really alienating. Multilinguals often possess more than one passport and have lived in more than one place. Or at least they visit their passport countries on a regular basis. But they don’t need to have lived in all the places they know the language from. – “Did you live in all the places you know the language from?” always gives us the possibility to either answer it by a simple “yes” or “no”, or to start a broader discussion about where the languages are spoken around the world, how many people talk them or why we didn’t or did live in the places they’re the national language.

2. “How would you say [fill in the blank] in [one of the languages the person talks]?”

People often are very curious to hear a child (or a grown up!) talking the other languages. Especially if it are more “exotic” ones for them. It’s not unusual to be asked to tell something in that other language. The only thing others don’t consider is that it’s difficult to “just say something in the other language”. What exactly do thy want to hear? Therefore, suggesting a sentence like “Hello, how are you?” or “Hi, my name is X and I come from Y” or a more complex one, helps the multilingual to not just be struck dump… – The positive side effect of this kind of questions is that we can point out the syntactical, lexical, phonetical differences among the languages we know. And this is something most bilinguals or multilinguals like doing.

3. “It’s amazing how you can switch from one language to the other!”

I know that this might sound a bit too much, but many multilingual children get to hear that they surely are not as proficient in language A as in language B (and C, D etc.) and that their tendency to switch from one language to the other is a sign of weakness or that they don’t master the languages yet. – Against all those clichés or false myths: code switching is actually a sign of great mastery of both languages, people should recognize it as a sign of mastery!

4. “You’re such a great example to (other) children!”

When children grow up multilingual they usually not only switch languages frequently but they also change from one cultural group to the other, adapting and embracing diversity. This is a very positive side effect and it is worth to be recognized because it gives those children a very open mindset. They usually don’t judge others by the language they speak or by the culture they come from, they tend to be much more curious and accepting. And this is, in this time of increasingly more global living families, an important asset that should be praised. – The same applies, of course, to adults!

5. “When did you learn all those languages?”

This is actually a question I’ve been asked a few times and I really liked it for two reasons: first, because I felt like the other person is really interested in the languages I speak, and second, because it gave me the possibility to tell more about myself. The conversation was not as superficial as it sometimes can be with monolinguals, or multilinguals who speak other languages than ourselves. In fact, one person who asked me this was a multilingual herself and we ended up talking about how difficult or easy it is to learn certain languages at some point of our life, and about when to start to learn an imparented language or when even it would be appropriate not to.

6. “Which language was easier to learn for you and why, except for those you learned naturally?”

This is a very intelligent question and it reflects that the other person is aware of the different level of difficulty in learning a language. Some are completely different from the mothertongue or one of the “family-tongues” (i.e. languages spoken within one family) but this doesn’t mean that they are more difficult to learn. Sometimes it’s even easier to learn a language from a completely different language-family than one that is imparented with one we already know.

And the second part of the question shows that the person is aware of the different ways someone can acquire (=naturally learning) and learn (=at school) a language.

7. “Do you speak all those languages on a regular basis?”

Being bilingual or multilingual is hard work. Keeping up with all the languages we learned and using them actively on a regular basis is not very easy. First, our parents need to provide inputs for us in all the languages we’re supposed to become proficient for social, emotional or very practical reasons. And then, once we’re adults, we need to find people who speak all our languages in order to keep them active and we need to find situations where to practice those languages. This is the challenge of a lifetime for people who want to stay bilingual or multilingual. – Personally, I couldn’t imagine to live in a strictly monolingual culture, it would be too hard for me to give up one of my languages…

8. “Do you have one (or more) dominant languages?”

This kind of question is obviously not very common. Surely nobody would ask this to a child. It is a question that linguists or people who know about linguistics would ask. We all have one or more dominant languages, also depending on the social context we’re living in: if we need more than one language in order to interact with our environment, those will probably be our most dominant languages. We still know the others too, but if we don’t practice them regularly, they’ll become more passive, secondary. – By asking this kind of question, people can get an idea about our linguistic situation and our preferences.

And what really should be avoided….

Even though I usually avoid telling what not to do and prefer giving positive advice about what to do, there are some really inappropriate things people can say to a bilingual or multilingual person that I would shortly mention here.

First of all, one should always avoid to be judgmental.

Rita mentioned several questions that could be interpreted in different ways, depending on who asks them: “you have hardly any accent”, for example. Some people might really be honestly thinking that you don’t have any accent, i.e. you really speak like a native. Others would say this just because they really think you have one… – But accents are not a sign of weakness or of not being proficient in a language. They just are our very personal “finger-print” and surely shouldn’t be criticized.

In general, a bilingual or multilingual person shouldn’t be corrected in the presence of others. Rita mentioned “You said that wrong!” as one of the many things one should avoid saying to a bilingual child and I can only agree. This shouldn’t be said to anyone. If someone really makes a mistake, remodelling is the key: “You mean [and say the sentence in the correct way, or like you think it should be said…]”.

One other thing that should be avoided is to compare to siblings, friends, partners, spouses etc.. We all pick up languages and speak them in our own very personal way. We all have preferences when it comes to languages and this is as natural as having an accent or having blond or brown hair etc..

One last thing: never ask which language they prefer the most. Every time people asked me this, I felt like they asked me to decide if I loved my father or my mother the most. This is just impossible!

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How we learn and memorize new words

Everyone has a very personal way to learn a language. Some of us just learn by repeating what they hear, others need to learn the structure, the grammar in order to consolidate the new language.

Every new word that we hear does make a long way to land eventually in our long term memory. When we read or hear it for the first time, the word lands in our very-short-term-memory (i.e. sensory register or sensory memory) and usually disappears from there, unless we focus our attention on it and concentrate and transfer it to the short term memory. Here, the new words spend approximately 20 minutes (some say even shorter). During this time we should repeat the new words, otherwise they’ll get “erased”. The way from the short term memory to the long term memory takes approximately 6 hours.

How does this work? It is like our brain would push the save button and the data, like on our computer, is saved on the harddisk. But even if the new words are memorized and fixed in the long term memory, they can’t rest. They have to be repeated in regular intervals, otherwise they’ll go into the passive storage room of our long-term memory, i.e. in our passive vocabulary and we could recall them later on, if we want or need them. This can happen languages we didn’t use regularly but reactivate at some point. We don’t have to re-learn them, we “just” have to reactivate them by stimulating our knowledge by reading, listening and using (talking) it again.

It seems complicated, but with this kind of constantly stimulating our new inputs we really can memorize up to 200 new words per day in our long-term memory. The single steps a new word takes make it clear why we need a certain time to master a new language and become proficient in it.

The way the storage of words and their networking with other words we already know works, depends on the type of learner we are.

The visual learner memorizes new words when he sees them written, i.e. when he reads them. The haptic, tactile  or kinesthetic learner needs to write the words in order to memorize them, the auditory learner needs to hear them.

Others prefer approaching a new language by understanding its grammatical rules. These are cognitive learners, who really need a systematic textbook. And then there are imitative learners who memorize the best by listening and repeating.

Independently from what kind of learner we are, we need to exercice and talk the new language whenever we can.

If you don’t know yet what kind of learner you are, you can find it out here  or here.

Adding the creative aspect to the learning process, the learning languages is never complete. It adapts to the always changing environment. Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman did a very interesting speech about “Empowering the Language Learner” (very long!) where she used a combination of lecture “and experimental exercices (…) and traced the evolution of language teaching methods over the past 60 years, discussing how each evolutionary phase has contributed to a more “whole-person” view of language learners. Larsen-Freeman suggests that when educators treat language as a closed, static system, they create a critical barrier to student empowerment. When language is instead seen as the complex, dynamic system, teachers are able to help their students transform their linguistic world, not merely conform to it. Larsen-Freeman illustrates how this shift in understanding has implications for what and how teachers teach.”

Thanks to Galina’s and Vera’s comments (here below) I realized that I needed to add another paragraph. It’s probably difficult to decide what kind of learner we are. I think this changes depending on the phase we are in during our learning process. For example, I am definitely an imitative learner in the first phases of learning a new language. I do imitate sounds, sound chaines, intonations and, of even whole sentences. But during these first phases I also need to read and hear the words I’m learning in order to understand their spelling and some basic orthographic rules of the new language. Later on, I expand this to the grammar: the morphology and the syntax. During this whole process I continuously compare the new language to those I already know, more ore less consciously. – The dynamicity Dr. Diane Larsen-Freeman mentions about the system of a language and what it implies for teachers who teach a language, is also recognizable in the learner himself. He’s going through different stages of comprehension which involve all the senses.

Therefore instead of asking you what kind of learner you are, I would like to know what kind of learner you are now, in your current phase of the (language) learning process.



(cfr. ©”Wie landet das Wort im Kopf”, P.M. 7/04)



The importance of role plays for children (and us…)

Role play involves imagination, and …

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Albert Einstein

When children do role plays, they naturally become someone or something else. Role play stimulates their imagination and “enhanc(es) their social development, encourag(es) friendship through cooperation, listening and turn taking”. Therefore, role play is a really vital activity for our children.

Our children can learn many skills and attitudes during role play, and learn how to be co-operative (teamwork) and be empathetic with others. They can learn to express all their feelings. They also can learn about other cultures and improve their language and movement skills.

During role plays our children can experience school activities like literacy and numeracy. In the playing shop, our children can “encompass all the aspects of the curriculum”. They can learn about money, about politeness and the right way to ask questions and respond etc. Role play can help our children to make sense of their world.

In her article “Role Play in Early Years Settings“, Julie Meighan points out the importance for preschools to “provide children with the opportunity to develop their imagination” through role plays.

“Imaginative play not only aids intellectual development but also improves children’s social skills and their creativity. In addition it gives children a chance to play out events that they have observed or experienced in real life.” And this means also situations they might have some problems to deal with. In fact, role plays can help to “explore moral issues and problems safely”.

I’m always amused when I see and hear my children having role plays and imitating a grown up, saying the things we use to tell them. By interiorizing our roles they become little adults, and I think that by playing, they get to understand us better.

Also, by getting into the future or the past, the role play permits to visit or re-visit places and moments our children need to handle. They can travel anywhere, in the real world or in a very fictional one, where people have special powers or things just are not like normal…

Role play: with adults and children

What I find very interesting in role plays with my children, i.e. when I or other grown ups are involved in the play, is that we all have the opportunity to understand different points of view simply by acting.

If I play the role of a baby or a child and one of my children plays a parent or a teacher, I relive how it feels to be the “little one”. And sometimes we adults get to know what our children retain from what we teach them, how they feel about the way we talk to them. During these role plays, when our children play our part, it’s like we were looking in a mirror. Personally, I find these role plays very helpful as I get to know what bothers my children, what they are afraid of or what they are particularly proud of. They have the opportunity to express their fears and needs without being judged.

Role play gives us the unique chance to meet our children in an imaginary world.

Have you played a role play with your children lately? What are your experiences with it?


Here’s an interesting study about the “Role of pretend play in Children’s Cognitive Development” by Doris Bergen.