The place of technology in bilingual education and 7 alternatives

Initiation to foreign languages and most notably English, seems to be a trend. You will find numerous apps branded as “bilingual”, Netflix & co. offer a good range of language options for almost all of its programmes, and Youtube is brimming with nursery rhymes in foreign languages.

There is no doubt that these are super tools to increase exposure to the minority language (ml). However, bilingual education stands on 2 pillars: exposure and creating the “need” in the child to use the ml (see Adam Beck’s brilliant book: “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability: Ideas and inspiration for even greater success and joy raising bilingual kids”).

Technological tools serve perfectly the exposure goal, but less so the creation of a need in the child to use the ml.  The risk? Creating a little “passive” bilingual, who understands but does not speak ml. If this is not your aim and that you want to raise your child as bilingually “active”, then it is important to supplement the exposure generated by these tools with activities that require human interaction and the use of the ml.  The latter will work towards creating the “need” in communicating. Here are 7 alternatives to inspire you:

  1. Games – hide-and-seek, treasure-hunt, doll-playing, pretend games such as shopping or doctor’s… All these games are part of any child’s development.  This is how they learn to communicate… and even more so when they are bilingual and need to learn a ml!
  2. Board-games – If like me you are uncomfortable with spontaneous play such as the ones mentioned above, board-games are an excellent solution.  Personally, we have set up a weekly family board-games night with our eldest daughter. She is delighted to have the attention all to herself and to her that night has a festive flavour, with a later bedtime.  This allows us to play games that match her age, interest, and that allow us to concentrate on her vocabulary, work in ml concepts learnt at the Majority Language (ML) school such as numbers, maths, etc….
  3. Books– more and always!  In fact, they are the cornerstones and give rise to interaction with your child.  You can discuss, describe, reinvent the story, and most importantly of all laugh together. You (unlike a screen) set the example to use the ml.  This is something much more personal. A moment shared with you child. S/he feels you are dedicating some time to them and will hence more likely feel like communicating with you by chatting about the book, asking questions, repeating rhymes or playing opposites, or by simply hanging on your every word as you read.
  4. Peers for ml playdates – if you ever get the opportunity, get it! It is simply priceless! Kids learn tremendously from one another (think of the little one copying their elder!).  And when on a playdate where they have to exclusively use the ml, this creates the need to use the latter.
  5. Interacting with other ml speakers – a grandparent or baby-sitter who only speaks the ml, here again, create in the child the need to communicate in the ml.  
  6. Talk to your child – But also let him/her talk too, that s/he feels listened to, without being corrected all the time but supported when s/he needs a hand.  This will enable him/her to develop self-confidence when having to use his/her ml. If s/he does not yet talk, describe all that you are doing and chat to him/her leaving little pauses and reacting to his/her gurgles, as if they where replies.  In fact, science seems to think that it is part of their early speech development.
  7. Arts & Crafts and cooking – plasticine, coloring-in, drawing, cutting out-sticking, arts & crafts of all sorts, cooking, basic DIY, basic gardening, all these activities give rise to a discussion so as to lead a shared project.  And to lead a project to its goal without making a mistake… nothing beats communication!

So what place should be given to technologies when you raise bilingual?

This post does not aim at excluding such type of resources.  I myself use a lot of cartoons, YouTube nursery rhymes and audiobooks. They help me supplement exposure to English, for which I am the only source of input. However, that said, I do not rely on them to pass on my minority language.  Cartoons and nursery rhymes are on for maybe 6 hours a week at most. We do not use any apps as we do not wish to leave the tablet in our daughters’ hands, yet the audiobooks are available at all times to incite our eldest to follow the story on the read-along book using her reading skills.

In my own opinion, technologies are more of a tool to create an ml environment  rather than a direct learning tool (c.f “Creating a minority language audio background”).

And in your home, what place do technologies have in your bilingual education strategy?  Please share your experience in the Comment section.

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