The Last Book My Dad Read to Me

bilingual father reaching for book

by guest blogger Sue Kwon

For my husband, our two young girls and myself, reading a bedtime story together is a much-loved nightly ritual. On our busiest days, it’s our first opportunity to sit down with a single purpose and no distractions. My husband is the official story reader in our family. He has patience (that I lack) with even the longest, most repetitive children’s books. The girls sit still, listen with rapt attention, and gaze up at him with eyes full of love and admiration.

In our household, we all speak and read in English. It’s a commonality that’s easy to take for granted. It means story time is an experience shared equally by everyone. The family I grew up in was different: my parents and older sisters were Korean immigrants, and I was born in the US. They all spoke and read in Korean, and I almost entirely in English. My father and I had a nightly story time routine too, and I remember very clearly the last book he ever read to me.

My father was born and raised in a small town in South Korea. He served a mandatory time in the military, married young, and eventually emigrated to the US with his wife and young daughters, knowing no English whatsoever. Once here, he picked up the language quickly while working at a doughnut shop, where he biked to and fro each day. One night at work, he was held up at gunpoint, and he decided to make a big change: He opened a business installing windows, a skill he had learned as a young man in Korea. We were lucky – the new business grew fast. But that meant he worked very long, stressful hours. By the time he got home at night, he was so exhausted he only paused briefly to eat dinner before going to bed.

I got into the habit of waiting by the front door as soon as my mother started making his dinner. That way, as soon as he walked in, I could pounce on him with a book in hand. Although my father had very impressive verbal English skills, his reading skills were very basic. Still, he would sit and read to me, and it was the few precious moments we spent together each day.

One evening, when I was 5, he came home from work and we sat down right in the entryway, just like always. He opened the book and read the first line: “We like worms!” he said, his English heavily accented. “Not worms, Daddy!” I interrupted. “It says ‘rhymes!’ Why would they like worms?” I doubled over with laughter. I found it hilarious that my dad, the most grown-up person I knew, someone I thought was invincible, didn’t know the word “rhymes.” What was even funnier to me was the fact that we had read that book a hundred times before, and I had thought all along it was a story about worms. I laughed so hard, I didn’t immediately realize that he wasn’t laughing with me. The emotion on his face was so clear, I knew without a doubt I had embarrassed him. It must have been humiliating to be corrected and laughed at by his preschooler. He handed me the book, shrugged, and said it looked like I didn’t need his help anymore.

We never attempted story time after that. Partly because of my father’s embarrassment, but also because I had lost respect for him. I naively thought that if I could read better than he could, I must be smarter than him. Who knows, maybe on some level he thought the same thing. It didn’t occur to me then that his ability to read in English was not a true measure of his intelligence. We never tried reading a book in Korean. I think if we had, I would’ve realized right away how silly my assumption was.

It wasn’t until I was grown with kids of my own, years after his passing, that I realized the enormity of my father’s life. The amount of bravery it must have taken for him to leave his home country. The level of intelligence it must have taken to pick up a new language, and then grow a successful business from scratch. My dad came from such humble beginnings, but managed to achieve so much in his life.

Thirty years after that last story, and 10 years after his passing, I often think about all the knowledge, experience and wisdom my dad must have carried with him. I wish I had given him a chance to hand it down to me. Because we didn’t share a written language, and had no means to bridge that gap, we missed out on a lifetime of knowing each other.

Tonight, as I sat with my husband while he read to the girls, I thought about how lucky we are. Lucky to be able to share bedtime stories, but also lucky to live in a time and place where foreign language is no longer seen as a detriment, but a great asset. Parents don’t have to give up their home language for fear of hindering their kids’ development. Languages can mix, intermingle and live in harmony in the same household. Parents and kids can meet somewhere in the middle, and share bedtime stories that lead to life stories that lead to a lifetime of family togetherness.

Do you have more than one language in your home? Tell us your thoughts and experiences by commenting below.

“No substitute” by Patrick Feller via Flickr licensed under CC BY 2.0

Why Your Children Should Learn a Less Commonly Taught Language

children reading foreign language books

by guest blogger Susan Cazenavette Herrick Siu

More than 300 distinct languages other than English are now spoken in the United States. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, those with the most native speakers in this country are Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, French, Vietnamese, German, and Korean (all with numbers of speakers in the millions), followed by Russian, Arabic, and Italian.

Other languages with large numbers of speakers (in no particular order) include Portuguese, French Creole, Yiddish, Greek, Polish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Navajo, Laotian, Thai, Hmong, Hindi, Urdu, and Serbo-Croatian.

The most commonly taught languages are Spanish, French, and German, which do happen to be among the top ten most commonly spoken languages in the U.S, but also all happen to be Indo-European languages closely related to English. All of the world’s other languages are classified as “less commonly taught.”

Many people decide to learn a language (or have their children learn a language) because of the number of people who speak that language (whether in the U.S. or abroad). Yet there are many good reasons why you or your child should consider learning a less commonly taught language.

To Get to Know Their Family History

Many North Americans, even if they no longer speak a language other than English, Spanish, French, or German at home, have ancestors who did. Did you perhaps have a Native American great-grandfather or a Ukrainian immigrant grandmother, or are you descended from African slaves who spoke Mende, Fula, or another West African language? Or perhaps your child’s connection to a less commonly taught language is even closer, as for my niece Sophia, who is learning Georgian in order to communicate with her grandmother and cousins in the Republic of Georgia and in the US.

To Read or Do Research in Another Language

Do your high school aged children want to read the Bible, the Torah, or the Buddhist scriptures in their original languages? Do they love modern Egyptian novels, Japanese comic books, or Chinese Taoist poetry? Do they want to attend school abroad? Do they plan to study history, art history, international studies, computers, languages, comparative literature, translation, or linguistics in college? If so, they might want to start studying a less commonly taught language now.

To Make New Friends in the Community

If you live in a community where less commonly taught languages are spoken, learning one of those languages may help your children make new friends and connections within the community. This may be true even if you don’t live in a big city. In Lewiston, Maine, where I live, for example, there is a large Somali community and knowing the Somali language would be helpful to anyone attending the public schools, as well as to anyone involved with community organizations, from the library to the farmer’s market to the hospitals. (See Newsweek‘s very interesting article, “The Refugees Who Saved Lewiston.”)

To Travel and Make New Friends Abroad

If your family is going on vacation to Ireland, your children would benefit from learning some Irish Gaelic. If your child plans to go on an exchange program to India, she might want to learn some Hindi, Gujarati, or one of India’s several hundred other mother tongues. If you or your spouse will be stationed in Kuwait or South Korea in the near future, your children could benefit greatly from learning to speak Arabic or Korean.

To Help Save a Dying Language from Extinction

More than half of the world’s approximately 6000 languages are now considered “endangered,” which means that there will be no native speakers left a hundred years from now. Many have only one, ten, or a few hundred speakers as I write; others have become extinct in the recent past. Some communities are making efforts to save their endangered languages from extinction by teaching them to both children and adults. Linguists are preserving others on paper or in audio and video formats so that these languages can be studied even when they are no longer spoken. For more information, please visit the Endangered Language Alliance website.

I wish you and your children the best of luck as you embark on your language learning adventures.

Susan C. H. Siu, a writer, linguist, and mother of three, is Editor-in-Chief of World’s Edge Books & Publishing, a small publishing company specializing in foreign-language titles. Susan speaks French and some Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Italian. She co-authored a book, Georgian Language for Parents and Children, Book I, with Darby Lezhava and Marico Maskharashvili. She also maintains the LinguistKids blog ( with the aim of providing resources to parents, educators, and librarians who want to help children learn languages, understand cultures, and become citizens of the world.

What less commonly taught language do you speak with your family? Comment below and tell us why!


This article originally appeared in Language Lizard’s Culture Connection Newsletter.  To receive this newsletter, please sign up here.

Ramadan in the Classroom & At Home

Ramadan night photo multicultural bilingualThis year, the Muslim holiday of Ramadan begins on June 17 and ends on July 17. It is the 9th and most sacred month in the Islamic calendar. Traditionally, it’s a time of fasting from sun up to sun down each day. Children aren’t required to fast until they’re teenagers, but may fast for part of the day to help them appreciate the significance of the holiday. Fasting is meant to help Muslims practice self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy. Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection, growth, and religious devotion.

Learning about Ramadan: Lesson Plan & Storybook

children's bilingual book Samira's Eid multiculturalLanguage Lizard offers a free, standards-based lesson plan that introduces students to Muslim customs and cultures, new languages and texts, and promotes acceptance of diversity. The lesson plan pairs with the bilingual storybook Samira’s Eid. Samira and her family get a surprise visitor during Ramadan who brings a special gift for them. The story teaches kids about the holiday’s traditions, and the meaning behind them, through Samira’s eyes.

Receive a 10% discount on the book Samira’s Eid now through July 17, 2015!  Simply enter Coupon Code Eid2015 during checkout.  Samira’s Eid is currently available with English and your choice of the following languages: Albanian, Arabic, Bengali, Farsi, French, Kurdish, Panjabi and Somali.

Experience the Food of Ramadan

ramadan meal multicultural bilingualEach night at sunset, families gather for the fast-breaking meal known as iftar. Get in the spirit by trying some traditional dishes served at iftar with your classroom or family. One quick and easy dessert that the kids can help make, and will love to eat, is this traditional mango, pistachio and cream dessert.

Ramadan Arts & Crafts Projects

Ramadan decorations multicultural bilingualRamadan can also be a time of beautiful decorations. Lanterns, in particular, have become symbolic of the holiday. Kids can make simple paper crafts, including lanterns, or try out more complex projects like this drum.

Online Ramadan Resources for Kids

child reading a book ramadan multicultural bilingualFind kid-friendly Ramadan photos online to look through together, and discuss how Ramadan is experienced by the littlest Muslims. The PBS Kids website offers a free, interactive book about Ramadan and its traditions. Or check out this multilingual Ramadan poster that includes illustrations of the call to prayer, fasting, sharing an evening meal, and family time.

Will you be learning about Ramadan with your classroom or family? Share your ideas by commenting below!


New Bilingual Book Sets – Now in 30 Languages!


bilingual children's book set available in 30 languagesLanguage Lizard is excited to announce that our bilingual book sets are now available in 30 different languages! (All books include English and one other language of your choice.)

Bilingual Book Sets Save You Time and Money

We have hand-selected groups of our most popular books to support language learning and promote literacy initiatives. With just one click, you can even choose between sets of five and ten. Tailored to meet the language needs of teachers and librarians, they make ordering easy and eliminate the work of searching through our site to find the perfect books for your classroom or library. These book sets will save you time and money, and help you choose the most accessible, interesting, and culturally appropriate books for the children you want to reach.

Now Available in 30 Languages!

Bilingual Book Sets are available with English and your choice of the following languages:

Albanian, Arabic, Bengali, Bulgarian, Chinese, Czech, Farsi, French, German, Gujarati, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Kurdish, Lithuanian, Panjabi, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese, and Yoruba.

10-10-10 Book Set Promotion

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we are offering $10 gift certificates for every 10-book set that you order before May 31, 2015. If you order multiple 10-book sets during this promotion, you can receive multiple gift certificates!

To receive your gift certificate(s), simply order a 10-book bilingual book set by May 31, 2015, AND in the “Order Notes” section of your online order, write “10-10-10” and your email address. If you are mailing or faxing an order, simply write “10-10-10” and your email address on the cover or front page of your order.

All gift certificates will be sent out in the month of June and can be used toward any Language Lizard order within the next year. (Note: certificates will be sent to the email address that you supply.)

The Multicultural Library: Responding to the Needs of Ethnically Diverse Communities

multicultural library with ethnically diverse booksAccording to 2013 Census data, nearly 13% of the US population is now foreign born and about 1 in 5 residents age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home. These figures are expected to increase, and are considerably higher in many areas of the country. Many new immigrants are struggling to learn English while maintaining their connection with their heritage language and country.

Innovative Ways for Libraries to Attract Ethnic Populations

As the United States has become increasingly diverse, more and more librarians are implementing creative strategies to attract and meet the needs of their ethnic patrons. Many libraries have transformed themselves into centers of information and learning for the diverse community. Following is a list of innovative ways librarians are welcoming and attracting their ethnic populations:

  1. Presenting story times in various languages.
  2. Offering newspapers in multiple languages.
  3. Developing a collection of bilingual children’s books for language learners and families trying to teach a heritage language to their children. Patron feedback has been especially positive when librarians set aside a “bilingual book display area” instead of simply including the books in their stacks.
  4. Sponsoring/hosting English as a Second Language (ESL) classes or creating “literacy centers” to help adults learn English.
  5. Offering special programs, such as citizenship classes or cultural programs that highlight important ethnic holidays (e.g., Chinese New Year, El Día de los Niños).
  6. Displaying colorful multilingual posters, and putting up signs in multiple languages.
  7. Carrying books that promote an acceptance of diversity, have multicultural themes and include illustrations of ethnically diverse characters.
  8. Accepting alternative forms of identification (such as a Matricula Consular from Mexico) and address verifications (such as utility bills and rent receipts) in order to increase access to the library. REFORMA, a national network of library organizations dedicated to promoting library services to the Spanish-speaking communities, suggests that this will help ensure that libraries serve the community regardless of a patron’s legal status.
  9. Hiring staff that speaks the language(s) of the immigrant communities (another recommendation by REFORMA).

Starting Your Multicultural Library

For librarians just beginning to develop their programs and collections for ethnic patrons and language learners, here are a few recommendations to get started:

  • Look up census data to determine which languages your library should support. The Modern Language Association offers a Language Map where users can find the number of speakers of each foreign language by zip code, city, county or state. The information also is available directly from The US Census Bureau.
  • Conduct an informal (or formal) survey of patrons to find out which newspapers they would read and which language books are most in demand.
  • Start with a small collection of children’s books and display them in a bilingual or foreign language book area. This will stimulate interest, and drive more patrons to share their own needs. It also will provide an opportunity to assess which books are checked out most.
  • Post multilingual posters and/or signs to welcome all patrons.
  • Ask around to see if there is a volunteer parent, board member or teacher who would be willing to conduct a bilingual or non-English story time.

Ethnic patrons truly appreciate when libraries increase their language holdings and offer services and programs to meet the needs of non-native-English speakers. Small, gradual steps to move forward in this area are met with great response, and establish libraries as true centers of learning for the entire community.

Tell us about an outstanding multicultural library in your neighborhood by commenting below!

This article originally appeared in Language Lizard’s Culture Connection Newsletter.  To receive this newsletter, please sign up here.

Photo “New Public Library In Dun Laoghaire, Officially Called DLR Lexicon Opened To The Public Today And It Is Worth Visiting Ref-100534” by William Murphy via Flickr, licensed under CC By 2.0.

Giveaway & New Site to Celebrate Our 10th Anniversary!

language lizard new website

We are very pleased to announce the launch of our newly designed website! Just in time for our 10th anniversary, the new site is designed with a fresh new look, user-friendly navigation, and a variety of features to help educators, parents and librarians support their language learners.

Finding the Right Bilingual Products Has Never Been Easier!

Language Lizard still offers the high quality, beautifully illustrated, professionally translated books and posters you know and love. Our new website design features faster, easier navigation, whether you’re searching for a particular product, or want to make use of our many free resources. You can search by language, reading level, product type, or title. While you’re there, be sure to check out our new video, featured on the homepage, to learn about all the ways we can support you!

New Website Giveaway

To celebrate our 10th anniversary and our newly designed website, we are holding a special giveaway! Just send us your thoughts, opinions and suggestions for our new site via the Contact Us form, and you will be entered to win a Language Lizard gift certificate. The lucky grand prize winner will receive a $50 gift certificate, and 3 runners-up will each win a $25 gift certificate! All entries must be received by May 15, 2015. No purchase necessary.

Using Multicultural Resources to Support Language Learners and Enhance Diversity in the Classroom

us dept of education sad-hortons-kids 114

Many educators successfully use multicultural resources to teach their students about other cultures and to make their classrooms more welcoming for a diverse student body. However, some teachers may feel overwhelmed at the prospect of adding “multicultural education” to their expanding list of things to do. They often are already dealing with new testing requirements, changing core standards, and other demands. They struggle with ways to make their classrooms more multicultural while meeting all of their other teaching objectives.

Incorporating multicultural education into the curriculum should not be considered an “additional” task; rather, with the right tools and resources, educators can integrate a multicultural element into existing lesson plans.

Benefits of Multicultural Resources in the Classroom

Using multicultural and multilingual resources in the classroom can enhance and support core standards, and can have the following benefits:

  • It makes the classroom more welcoming for students from different countries because they see their own culture and language reflected in the lessons.
  • It builds self-esteem and instills in multi-ethnic students a sense of pride about their heritage.
  • It provides all students a chance to learn about other cultures and languages, which can help them succeed globally and in our diverse communities.
  • It offers an opportunity to involve parents from diverse cultures in the classroom.
  • If students are allowed to bring multilingual materials home, it promotes literacy at home and enhances parental involvement, both of which improve school success.

Below are just a few suggestions on how to incorporate a multicultural element into already-established lessons that may give you some new ideas or thoughts on the topic.

Cultural Holidays and Festivals

Teaching about holidays and festivals is an excellent way to introduce diverse cultures to your students. While studying different holidays, children can cover important concepts such as “comparing and contrasting,” and the learning can bridge over to art, math, and other subjects.

For example, when studying Thanksgiving, consider reading Samira’s Eid and comparing and contrasting our celebration of thanks with the Islamic celebrations of Eid and Ramadan. During the winter holidays, a book such as Marek and Alice’s Christmas shows how Christmas is celebrated in Poland. In learning about how other cultures celebrate familiar holidays, children begin to understand traditions from other parts of the world. Children can draw Venn diagrams to share what they have learned.

Other important holidays can be discussed as they occur throughout the year. You can use Deepak’s Diwali to teach about the major Hindu holiday Diwali (the Indian Festival of Lights). When teaching about Diwali, speak to the art teacher about having the children design their own Rangoli patterns. Students also could review the Rangoli patterns in math class when they are learning about symmetry.

Students can learn about Chinese New Year in the book Li’s Chinese New Year. In art class during this time, they can make masks with a sign of the zodiac (instructions about how to make the mask are included in the book). Older children can work in teams to do additional research on international holidays and festivals and then come together to present their work.

Dental Health and Hygiene

Many schools periodically have a dentist come to discuss dental hygiene. Including a reading of The Wibbly Wobbly Tooth is a great way to add a multicultural element to such a lesson. This story depicts a child of Asian heritage trying to figure out what to do with a tooth that just came out. In it, he talks to friends from all different cultures to find out what they do when a tooth falls out. This opens up an opportunity for you to ask your students from other countries to share their family’s traditions.

The dental health lesson could also include a bilingual version of Sahir Goes to the Dentist, ideally choosing a language edition spoken by kids in the class. Not only will students read about a child’s visit to the dentist, they will see a language/text that is represented in their class or community.

Community, Cooperation and Teamwork

In the bilingual book The Giant Turnip, school children work together to plant a garden and then have to figure out how to remove a giant turnip that grows there. In the end, they are successful only after they have brainstormed ideas and have all worked cooperatively.

This is, of course, a great book to use when doing units about planting and growing a garden. But it is also an excellent tool for discussing themes of community, cooperation and teamwork. For example, it can be used as an introduction to the concept of “community.” What is a community? Why is it important? Similarities and differences within a community, and how differences in a community can help it operate better.

Students can discuss the diverse makeup of their own communities and even how their classroom community can be more united. Older students can research different communities around the world, comparing and contrasting similarities and differences. The book can also be used to reinforce concepts of cooperation and teamwork: how people need to work together to achieve a common goal.

Folk Tales and Fables

When teaching a unit on folk tales, include bilingual folk tales from around the world in the lesson. You can introduce the concepts of “good versus evil,” the importance of cooperation, and the rewards of courage and ingenuity, while simultaneously introducing other cultures and languages. Some great stories to consider are: Yeh-Hsien (A Chinese Cinderella); the Bengali folk tale Buri and the Marrow; the beautiful Chinese story The Dragon’s Tears; and the Tibetan Fable “The Hare’s Revenge” (part of Lion Fables).


For younger children who are learning to count, consider reading a book such as Handa’s Hen, in which young Handa is looking for her chicken and encounters many other animals and insects along the way. Set in Africa, children will see settings and animals that may be new to them (e.g., five beautiful sunbirds, eight spoonbills). By pointing out different languages in the bilingual books, children also can see the different language scripts, thus expanding their view of the world. In addition, using multilingual number cards when learning numbers will allow children from non-English speaking homes to see their languages represented in class.

The Five Senses

Welcome to the World Baby is a wonderful multicultural book to share with children who are learning about the five senses. It is especially exciting to use in class when a student has a new baby sibling. In the story, Tariq has a new baby brother and the children in his multicultural classroom share how they welcome new babies in their families. Each example relates to one of the five senses (e.g., they can touch An-Mei’s red painted egg, which stands for birth, life and growth, and is the color of good luck; they can taste Elima’s bitter aloe leaf and sweet honey, which represents that life can be bitter and sweet). Again, this offers a chance for children from multicultural households to share their own traditions.

These are just a few of many examples of how multicultural and multilingual stories can be used to bring a global perspective to existing lessons and make multi-ethnic children feel better represented in the classroom. For more details and additional lessons that incorporate multicultural stories, please see the free multicultural lesson plans on our website. Share your own multicultural teaching ideas by commenting below!


This article originally appeared in Language Lizard’s Culture Connection Newsletter.  To receive this newsletter, please sign up here.

Photo “SAD_Hortons_Kids 114” by US Department of Education via Flickr, licensed under CC By 2.0.

Celebrate “World Folk Tales & Fables Week” in the Classroom and at Home

IMG_3201This year, World Folk Tales and Fables Week is from March 16 through March 22. It’s a week dedicated to encouraging children and adults to explore the lessons and cultural background of folk tales, fables, myths and legends from around the world.

Reading folk tales is a great way for children to explore different cultures and enhance literacy skills. Learn more about why kids love folk tales and fables in a previous blog post that discusses why folk tales are such a great teaching tool for kids.

A folk tale is any story that has been passed down through generations by a group of people. A fable, one type of folk tale, is a short story that teaches a lesson, often features talking animals, and is directed particularly at children. The most well known creator of fables is Aesop, a Greek slave believed to have lived around 560 BC. Some of his most popular fables are “The Tortoise and the Hare,”  “The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg,” and “The Lion and the Mouse.” There are also more modern-day fables, like Dr. Seuss‘s The Lorax.

Resources for Teachers & Parents

If you’d like to introduce your class or family to folk tales, but aren’t sure where to begin, Language Lizard offers a series of blog posts dedicated to international folk tale characters. There, you can get an overview of characters from around the world, like the Monkey King from China, and Finn McCool of Ireland.


One of our favorite stories, the Bengali folk tale Buri and the Marrow, is used in the lesson plan entitled “Language, Customs, Culture in India,” which can be downloaded at no cost from our website. Don’t hesitate to use any of our lesson plans to help you explore different cultures and folk tales with your students.

Or try another great folk tale, Yeh-Hsien: A Chinese Cinderella. This Chinese version of Cinderella is similar to, yet delightfully different from, the more recognized European or Disney interpretations of the story. Children will be inspired by Yeh-Hsien, a strong character who takes her destiny into her own hands.


We also offer the Myths and Legends collection (Pandora’s Box, Isis and Osiris, Beowulf, The Children of Lir), which can be a good starting point for older children to explore various cultures and classic stories.

We hope you have an exciting World Folk Tales and Fables Week, exploring new characters, adventures and cultures from far away lands!

Get 10% off two entertaining world folk tales – Buri and the Marrow and Yeh-Hsien: A Chinese Cinderella – by entering Coupon Code FOLKTALE2015 at checkout! This discount is valid now through March 31, 2015.

Comment below and share with us your favorite folk tales and fables!

Relationships and Bilingual Families

family holding hands

by guest blogger Christine Jernigan, Ph.D.

I recently wrote the book, Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children. In my interviews with parents, they frequently spoke of the language “bond” they shared with their children. Let’s look at this connection. What does speaking another language do for familial relations? How does it affect interactions? What does it mean to have a code language?

The Language Connection

Think about your speech in your native tongue. You speak different versions of the language depending on who you’re talking to. With your elderly neighbor, you use more formal language, using “yes” instead of “yeah.” If you spoke to your best friend the way you speak to this neighbor, she’d wonder why you were sounding so stilted. That’s because language also represents the kind of relationship you have with someone. Ever seen newlyweds speak their own lovey-dovey language? When you’re speaking a foreign language with your child, you have an even stronger bond because it is so different from the way others around you speak.

I’ll tell you about a family I interviewed. The father, Ralf, has spoken German for years to his daughter, Sara, now five years old. Ralf is German, but he’s married to an American and lives with his family in the US. He was trying to become an American citizen. After much preparation and waiting, Ralf was finally awarded citizenship. The day he came home from the awards ceremony, he spoke to Sara in English, instead of their usual German. He was just playing around when he said, “Okay, no more speaking German with Daddy, Sara. I’m American now!” (R.D., interview). Much to his surprise, she burst into tears. He had to console her for some time—in German!—reassuring her he was making a joke and that, of course, they would keep speaking German together. Even at a young age, Sara tied German to her relationship with her father. To abruptly abandon the language would mean cutting their special cord.

The Bond of Extra Time

Parents I interviewed say the relationship with their children is greatly enriched by the extra time they spend with them sharing the second language. I’ve found this to be true in my life, as well. I speak Portuguese to my children, a language I learned later in life. Being the main speaker of the language to my children has encouraged me to continually communicate with them. I strongly believe that the extra time and focused attention strengthens our attachment. As my children have grown, I’ve kept a journal of their language development. This journal entry is from when my kids were almost six and four:

“… raising the kids bilingual…pushes me to spend time with them, talking to them, not just doing around-the-house chores in silence and such. I get a reminder that I haven’t been vocal with them…[when] they struggle to find the word in Portuguese… Playing Uno and Go Fish has helped a lot… I think every mom struggles with…rarely get[ting] down on the floor to play because there are always bills to pay or phone calls to be returned or beds to make.” (journal, 1/26/2007)

Other parents agreed. They reported that being aware of speaking an L2 (new language) meant they interacted more with their children. This mom speaks French with her infant:

“I really feel I do a better job teaching my infant French instead of English. I talk more often if I am speaking French, because I am conscious of teaching a language.” (F.T., email interview)

Just Between Us

How great would it be to talk to your kids and have no one understand? I love being able to correct my kids without other people noticing. In this journal entry, my daughter was four and very stubborn about apologizing:

“Today Portuguese really came in handy. One thing I cannot get Sydney to do until she’s good and ready is apologize. Today she smarted off to my dad. I told her she needed to say she was sorry and could tell Diddy [Daddy] was waiting for an apology. She flatly refused and instead said, in Portuguese, “I want juice,” so I told her, “After you apologize.” She said she was sorry right then and there.” (journal, 5/19/2005)

Think back to times in your childhood when your parents corrected you in public. Perhaps you did something that embarrassed them. You made a rude comment that other people overheard, or you asked an inappropriate question about a stranger. Parents I interviewed said it’s much easier when no one picks up on the embarrassing things kids say. One mom states, “And sometimes Mary Kate says things inappropriate about people and you can explain in French. Once she was in a restroom and a lady passed gas and Mary Kate said, ‘She farted Mommy!’ [but] in French.” (J.F., interview)

In this case, the code language helped not only the mother, but also the stranger to not feel embarrassed. I’ve had many such situations, one when my daughter was just two:

“This morning…we were at the mall and Sydney saw a woman who was overweight with bushy black hair going everywhere. She yelled out and pointed at the woman saying, “Bruxa!” [Witch!]” (journal, 11/4/2004)

Of course, parents still have to explain to children why these comments are rude or hurtful, but since no one actually gets hurt in the moment, the intensity is dialed down.

Directly from the Source

I decided to ask my children directly if speaking Portuguese has changed our relationship. Their responses are below (translated from Portuguese):

Sydney (13 years old): We can talk to you when I don’t want other people to hear. Other kids can’t do that.

James (10 years old): If it’s just you, Sydney and me and we’re learning the language together, it’s like bonding. And when we go other places, I can talk just to you—if people are around, they can’t chime in. It’d be fun to have a code language with a friend.

In Closing

In closing, I’d like to offer a word of encouragement. When we as parents think of taking on bilingualism, we can quickly talk ourselves out of it. The many negatives jump to the forefront and can scare us off. But when you look at all the many benefits of bilingualism and then add to that a closer bond, a tighter connection, suddenly learning and sharing a foreign tongue looks worth the while. Join me on a wild and wonderful journey. And check in with me to let me know how it’s going:

Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children is available in paperback and ebook at

Your Springboard & Cheerleader: ‘Family Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children’ by Christine Jernigan

JerniganFamily Language Learning: Learn Another Language, Raise Bilingual Children
Written by Christine Jernigan, PhD
Paperback and ebook
Review by Sue Kwon

Inspired by her experiences with foreign language learning, in professional settings and in her own family, Christine Jernigan, PhD, set out to write a unique guide for parents who want to raise their kids to speak more than one language. Specifically, Family Language Learning is designed for parents who are still in the process of learning a second “target” language themselves, or who are fluent but living in a country where another language is dominant. Jernigan, who instructs foreign language teachers at North Carolina State University and works as a language coach for parents, writes in a flowing, humorous and engaging style. The many personal anecdotes told by the author, as well as by other parents raising bilingual children, range from amusing to deeply moving. Readers will find themselves relating wholeheartedly to the language learning adventures (and misadventures) these parents have experienced.

This book is meant to be a how-to guide, or “springboard” as Jernigan calls it, for parents in the early stages of teaching their children a new language. It is also intended as a motivational tool, or “cheerleader” for when those parents inevitably run into roadblocks, or are feeling discouraged. Throughout, readers are encouraged to remain flexible, and to make adjustments when a situation demands it: “Keep your language plan in play dough, not stone,” as Jernigan very nicely puts it.

Family Language Learning stands out particularly because of Jernigan’s unique approach to the subject of language learning. While most experts focus on the academic, social and economic benefits of learning a second language (as does Jernigan, from the very first chapter), this author also explores in depth the greater emotional bond that learning a new language can create.

This book is accessible to every stage of language learner, even those at the very start of their journey. Concepts and terminology are explained in a clear and concise manner that assumes you have arrived with no prior language training. Each chapter delves into a different aspect of language learning, from why it’s important for your children to learn a new language to why you should encourage your kids to read foreign language material on their own, and how to motivate them to practice writing in the target language.

While Family Language Learning can easily be read cover-to-cover, thanks to Jernigan’s conversational style of writing, the chapters are broken into sub-sections that also make it easy to flip to the particular topic you’re seeking answers to. So, even when you’re well into your language journey, you can find just the right words of guidance and encouragement you need when you reach a bump in the road.

Family Language Learning is available in paperback and ebook at

You May Also Want to Read…

BakerAdditional, valuable information on bilingualism and language learning can be found in A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism by Colin Baker, a classic book in the field now in its fourth edition. This book is an extremely thorough guide for teachers of bilingual students, as well as parents who are raising bilingual children, whether they are fluent in the second language or not.

A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism can serve almost as an encyclopedia of language learning because it offers a wealth of information on a very wide range of topics. Each chapter is dedicated to distinct subjects, like “Family Questions,” “Language Development Questions” and “Reading and Writing Problems,” and within each chapter are Frequently Asked Questions that Baker has encountered over decades of working with parents and colleagues in bilingual education, as well as in his personal experience successfully raising three bilingual children.

A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism (4th ed) is available in hardcover and paperback at