Bilingual Children: 5 Tips for Using Language in Context

There are so many wonderful ways for our children to learn languages today. Online programs offer interactive multimedia opportunities that we could have only dreamed of having when we were young. Bilingual books and DVDs can be found in many libraries around the country, and children’s language learning classes abound.

What parents and teachers sometimes forget is the value of context when it comes to learning a language. Flash cards and online vocabulary games can be fun, but they don’t offer the kind of language development that human conversation provides. We use language for communication, and therefore it is best learned in its natural form: through discussions, conversations and stories.

For children who are already bilingual or are learning a language for the first time, the goal is technically the same: to provide as much varied language exposure as possible. No single approach will work for every single child, in part because every child is at a different language level. The key is to have a variety of opportunities for language exposure and interaction so that every child is benefiting in his or her own way.

Below are tips on how to use language in context at home or in the classroom:

  1. Read out loud: You have heard it before and here we emphasize it again: reading to children out loud is an amazing way to introduce and strengthen vocabulary in context in meaningful ways. Even books that are below a child’s language level can be beneficial since it establishes more subtle elements of language which we often forget about, such as intonation, rhythm, speed, accent and more. Better yet, encourage children to read out loud to one another!
  2. Circle time: Having children come together to do show-and-tell or discuss a specific topic is an excellent way to encourage children to listen to others and use language themselves. Depending on the personality of the children in your class, it may be best to keep the circles small and less intimidating. Make it clear that laughing about other children’s language skills is an absolute no-no. Explain that everyone is at a different level when it comes to mastering a language and the key is to encourage one another to feel comfortable and supported.
  3. Play Games: Playing games in a specific language is a wonderful way for everyone to get involved. Make sure that the game being played incorporates language use but is also easy enough for everyone to participate in. Children shouldn’t feel panic and worry about language skills when such games are played.
  4. Sing Songs: Singing together is a wonderful way to learn language in context. The process of singing songs repeatedly helps to commit sentences and verb forms to memory. Plus, it gives children who are feeling insecure with their language skills the opportunity to master words and sentences.
  5. One-on-one conversations: Take time out during each week to sit in a quiet corner with each child for some one-on-one conversation time. Having this special time away from others can really help a child blossom. It also provides an opportunity for the adult and child to form a bond of mutual trust. Children need to know that they are truly heard by the key adults in their lives, especially when their language skills are still developing.

Language learning is only partly about learning words and how to put them together into correct sentences. It is also about our emotions and social interactions. We associate feelings with many words which we use. This is why learning words in context is key: to understand the nuances of a given language, we need to experience the language personally through interactions with others. These human bonds are as important as the words that we learn in the process.

What is wonderful about learning language in context is that it comes so naturally! All we have to do is spend time with our children and students, talking, playing, conversing and laughing. This is the greatest language gift of all!

Photo credit: WellspringCS

What are your tips for providing children and students with contextual language opportunities? Which do your children and students enjoy the most?

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12 thoughts on “Bilingual Children: 5 Tips for Using Language in Context”

  1. Another good experience (that I remember from my days as a student of French and later incorporated as a teacher of language) is planning and having a semi-formal meal with the students. It starts with discussing foods that might be on the menu– or not. (e.g. Do not expect to find donuts on a breakfast menu in France. There are regional differences even in the USA. How many restaurants in the North have grits in the breakfast menu?)
    How much does the food cost? (You can “create” currency on a copier so long as it is significantly over-sized or under-sized and slightly altered so you’re not counterfeiting, but stay realistic.)
    If some of the food can be prepared at school, it’s a chance to talk about numbers and measurements and ingredients in a meaningful context.
    Organizing the room and setting the table provides the opportunity to call furniture and table setting pieces by name, and use prepositions to specify locations. (“Please put the napkin under the forks. The knife goes to the right of the plate.”)
    Students should take turns being the host/hostess, waiter, server, customer, cook & cashier. so they all get a chance to be on both sides of the dialog.
    Of course, Insist that everyone uses the target language to ask for food, drinks, the check, etc. during the real activities.
    (I still remember “Passe-moi le sel, s’il te plaȋt, for asking friends, and “Passez-moi le sel, s’il vous plaȋt.” for asking teachers.) That’s “Pass the salt, please” familiar and formal.
    Gestures, pointing or “wrong” language results in a response in the target language “What is that?” or “Do you mean______?
    The students must use the correct words before receiving service or proceeding with a request.
    Food can be a good motivation, and everyone gets to eat if they participate appropriately.
    The planning and discussion should take place over a number of days so everyone has a chance to become familiar with the words and expressions.
    This can be done for number of different occasions, and adapted for age levels.
    Bon appétit!

    1. Thank you so much for this comment, Gary! What a fantastic way to get children using language! I really appreciate the details that you gave – it gives enough specifics to help get us started. And as you say: “Food can be a good motivation” – you said it! Thank you for sharing this fun tip!

  2. I am going to try each of these suggestions. I have been trying to raise my son bilingual, but have not been very successful has the second language I am trying to give him is not my native one. Maybe these suggestions will help!

  3. I also am trying to raise our girls with French & Korean language influence, yet I am not a native speaker to either, so it’s also a challenge for me. The main challenge is their reluctance to learning. They’re surrounded by English speakers, so why do they need to learn another language? We try to take field trips to the French area of our city, or to Korea Town so they can practice new words, or taste, see and smell the sights of another culture. I plan to keep trying this spring and especially over the summer when we have more time.

    Gary, I have very fond memories of learning about French food and culture in my high school french class. One day a year we all brought in various items to make crepes, and it was the highlight of the year. Great ideas! 🙂

  4. Hi All: I started to leave this long-winded comment and then lost it to some involuntary button-pushing. So, I will try to rehash the core of it (losing it might have been a blessing in disguise). I have been trying to raise our 2 1/2-year old speaking German (my native language) and English, but find that I am lacking the resources to make this easier on myself. FOr example, it seems to be hard and expensive to find foreign language children’s books in languages other than Spanish or maybe French. Yes, I know, online and even here, but I can’t afford to spend that much money all the time. Our library has an extensive Spanish section, but the other sections are incredibly small (if in existence) and old. I wish that it was easier and less espensive to get this things as internet downloads. Also, I am not opposed to using TV for foreign language exposure, but unless I have my family mail me DVDs or I use YouTube, I can barely find any of that. How hard would it be for Netflix, in addition to buying the rights for foreign movies for adults, to get those for foreign language children’s movies or shows?
    Another point: I have found that the biggest thing lacking in my daughter’s daily life is being able to listen to a dialogue in German. She gets my ongoing monologue all the time, but that doesn’t help in certain situations. For example, in German, the words for “please” and “you’re welcome” are the same (“bitte” or “bitte schoen”). It is next to impossible for me to teach her the difference because when I tell her “you’re welcome”, she thinks I am prompting her to say “please”… Situations like that can best be understood and taught in the right context. I have been scrambling to get together more with other Germans and their kids, but life is busy for all of us, and, while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak 🙂
    Those are just my two cents worth on the topic. I really appreciated this article and its suggestions and just wanted to point out some of the ongoing challenges I have experienced. Any and all responses are greatly appreicated.

  5. I loved this article because I am always looking for ways to make language come alive for children. I love to share Spanish with the pre-schoolers I teach, as an enrichment to their regular curriculum, and we do that mostly through music and rhymes. To practice and learn new colors, we search the room for things that have that color. We review colors when they line up and look at their clothes to see who has the color that is named. It is great to see them get excited about the words that they have learned and use them in context, not just in circle time.

  6. I teach French and I’m trying to speak French to my son. I think the games, songs, and reading out loud apply equally well to both circumstances. The middle school students forget that they’re learning a language in school when we play games, and my son is so young that anything we do is fun!

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