Supporting Children’s Bilingualism & Home Language Development: Tips for Families

By Dr. Guadalupe Díaz Lara, Cesia Vega & Dr. Karen D. Thompson.

During a parent teacher conference Mrs. Cortez shared that she was concerned that her children were speaking English at home more and more and spoke very little Spanish. She worried that her children would forget how to speak Spanish. If they forgot how to speak Spanish how would they communicate with their grandparents who didn’t speak English? She wanted to make sure that her children were learning both Spanish and English and grow up to be bilingual.  

As teachers we hear this concern often from parents, therefore, we created a list of five tips for how parents can continue to facilitate their children’s bilingualism and foster home language development.

Tip # 1: Share with your children the reasons why you want them to be bilingual!

It’s important to share with your children why as a family you value being bilingual. It’s essential to communicate with your children because they need to find a purpose as to why certain expectations are important or set. As a family you can choose three reasons why bilingualism is important for your family.  Here are some examples other families have chosen:

  • Communicate with family and friends who speak their home  language
  • Learning about family culture & roots
  • Having more job opportunities in the future

In addition to coming up with your reasons, you can create a family plan on how you will support your children to  become bilingual. For example, you can set a goal that when you are at home you only use your home language. Take into account your children’s input as you choose your reasons and make your plans. Children are more motivated  if they feel like their voices are being heard!

Tip # 2: Make connections between language and culture! 

Connecting language to culture can help your children find value in using their home language and becoming bilingual . As your children start going to school and learn more English, it is crucial that they understand that language and culture are connected.  Talk to them about the importance of being able to talk to family members who do not  speak English to learn about their traditions, values and costumes. If you have family and friends in your home country make an effort to have your children talk to them, exchange pictures and videos and share stories with each other  about the day to day  in each country.

You can also read books about children who are bilingual and how being bilingual enriches their lives. For example, the book “Me encantan los Saturdays y los domingos” or “I Love Saturday y domingos” by Alma Flor Ada is a wonderful story of a child whose grandparents speak Spanish and English and how she is able to communicate and learn about the different family history and traditions because she is able to speak both Spanish and English.

Tip # 3: Be a language model! 

One of the concerns we hear often from parents is that when they speak their home language  to their children they often respond in English.  It is typical for children who are learning two languages to favor one language over the other. This can happen depending on which language children feel more comfortable speaking. But don’t be discouraged; continue to be a language model for your children and speak in your home language. The more intentional and consistent you are about speaking your home language the more likely your child will be to follow your lead and slowly start using their home language with you.

Tip # 4: Create a positive language experience!

It is important that you do not force your children to speak their home language. Instead create positive opportunities for them to practice and hear their home language. Be intentional about finding resources such as community events, books, music and movies where their home language is used.  Creating a positive language experience can influence your children’s willingness and confidence to use their home language.

Tip # 5: It’s never too late!

Parents ask if once their children are older it’s too late for them to practice and learn their home language.  It is never too late for your children to learn and practice their home language! It is easier to build a foundation if you start when your children are younger and set intentional expectations for using the home language.  As your children get older, if available, they can take advantage of classes at school to continue to learn their home language. If available in your local school district, placing your children in bilingual/dual immersion programs  can help to continue to foster your children’s bilingualism. If you have questions about bilingual/dual immersion  programs in your area contact your local school.

Dr. Guadalupe Díaz Lara is a Research Associate with the Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL). Her work focuses on supporting the educational experiences of bilingual children and families. 
Cesiah Vega is a bilingual Preschool educator in the Forest Grove School District. She has been teaching for 9 years. Her passion is working with families to support the development of their children.
Dr. Thompson is an Associate Professor and Chair of the ESOL/Dual Language Program in the College of Education at Oregon State University. Her research addresses how curriculum and instruction, teacher education, and policy interact to shape the classroom experiences of multilingual students in K-12 schools.
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