First Post for SpanlishEasy: "Activate your child's bilingual ability using the Flags Technique"

Further to my post last week, announcing the teaming up of Our ml Home with SpanglishEasy, I am delighted to share with you this first regular post for my bilingual blogger sidekick, Raquel.  Since the topic could be of interest to many bilingual parents, I decided to translate it to English to post it on my blog too, in the hope it can inspire and help as many bilingual parents as possible…

One of the difficulties that a lot of parents face when raising bilingual, is to get their child to answer back in the minority language (ml). And this makes them doubt: does my child understand when I speak to him/her in the ml? Does bilingual education really work? 

In fact, according to Adam Beck in “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability: Ideas and inspiration for even greater success and joy raising bilingual kids”, there are 2 pilars to bilingual education: 

1) exposure to the ml-  that is how much minority language your child gets to hear,

2) the child’s need to use the ml.

It is the lack of the latter that incites the child not to reply in the ml, and become a passive bilingual (who understands but does not speak). A technique to try and solve this and turn your child into an active bilingual (understands and speaks), is what I call the Flags Technique.

We use it in our home, and upon hearing 2 other bilingual mums talking about their successful story with this technique, Raquel asked me to tell you about it. So here goes!

What is it?

Inspired from the SuperNanny TV programme which recommends writing down house rules for the benefit of the entire family, the Flags Technique consists in creating a visual linguistic rule that the child can understand and that reminds him/her that s/he is expected to use the ml at home.  

This rule is brought to the child’s attention with a little flag of the: 

  • ml put up at his/her eye-level in a visible place where that language must be used -e.g: on the door of a room as you walk in, 
  • Majority Language (ML) as you exit the room to signal that s/he may use the ML once again. 

It can be put into practice in 2 ways, depending on the linguistic need of your home:

  1. In a specific room of your home – A transition from passive to active bilingualism can be initiated by restricting the use of the rule to one specific room.  As your child goes using more and more ml, you can then extend the rule to more rooms in your home. Depending on your child’s personality, you might not even have to extend the rule.  If your child feels comfortable, s/he might spontaneously use more ml, regardless of the location.

This method was used by 2 Spanish mums raising their kids in English in Spain,  after I explained it to them, and they later contacted me to let me know how delighted they are with the first positive results reaped.  One of them set the rule in her bathroom, and she told me how chuffed she was at hearing her daughter uttering sentences she had never heard her say before. They are  still at the beginning of this new house rule, but the news is promising.

  1. All over the house – This is the rule we use in our home.  We are a trilingual family (we live in France, Daddy speaks in Spanish and Mummy in English)  and when my eldest daughter was 4 years old (the youngest was a newborn), she always replied in French.  To activate her minority languages, I got the idea to stick a little Spanish and British flag on our main door to remind her that in our home we are only allowed to use these languages.  Behind our main door, we put a French flag to remind her as we walked through the door on our way out that she could use French. It was a hit with her, and if she ever slipped into using French, we would send her to the main door to check out the little flags and remind herself what they meant. She tried 3 times but never tried it again after that, as she had understood that this rule was here to stay.  The second hit derived from this experience is with the little one who is now 4 years old, who understands she can only use the mls at home.

Whatever your choice, remember that kids follow the example, hence you will have to go by this rule too!

Why does it work?

This rule works for various reasons:

  • Visualisation of an abstract rule – Rules are very abstract concepts for children.  This is why they forget them so fast. However, with a visual reminder, it suddenly becomes a lot more tangible and sticks better in their mind. It also helps them to set the linguistic changes that are being implemented in your home.
  • A setting – It is widely known that to blossom children need a setting.  These little flags enable to erect a linguistic setting at home.  They define what is expected from your child.
  • It pushes the child outside his/her comfort zone – More often than not, kids tend to be cushy;  they do not usually go outside their comfort zone unless we trick them in a playful way. For instance, if Daddy can carry him/her in his arms instead of walking with his/her little legs, or using his/her hands instead of using cutlery… In fact, after implementing this Flags Technique, I asked my eldest daughter why before she would not use English or Spanish.  She confessed that “French is easier”. 

The Flags Technique is the super personification of the Time & Place strategy, used by so many parents raising bilingual. These flags merely bring this strategy to life.

How to put it into practice?

  1. Define with your partner the rule you wish to implement.  For example, the ml all over the house or in some set rooms. 
  2. Print as many flags of each language as places where you wish the languages to be used, and place them in a pretty or appealing envelope. 
  3. Have a little chat with your child to explain the new house rule that both little and big people must abide by.  As part of this new adventure, hand the envelope to your child and explain s/he has a “mission”:
    1. When your child opens the envelope, ask him/her if s/he knows these flags, and if necessary explain the language each represents.
    2. Hand sellotape or sticky-tack to your child and guide him/her to put up the flags where you want them to be. 

Bear in mind that once this rule is implemented, the activation of the ml skills does not happen overnight. Your child will need some time to expand their vocabulary and cease using the ML in the set area.  In our case, for the first 6 months, my eldest continued using some Majority Language words when she lacked the ml word.  Nevertheless, as her ml use expanded, the ML disappeared. Nowadays, she no longer uses ML words, and when she lacks a word, she describes it to me or she asks me directly.  

To help your child with this transition:

  • Rephrase in the ml what they said in the ML. 
  • Incite them with an encouraging voice intonation to repeat new words.
  • Praise them when they use a new word or make an effort.

Remember…

  1. Children learn through games – so make sure to go about it playfully.  For instance, if you implement this rule in your bathroom, consider including water toys for bath time, a stack of books within arm’s reach when on the loo, singing nursery rhymes to time the duration of the tooth brushing…

If you venture into applying this rule to the whole house, and not limited to just one room, I suggest 2 extra ideas that your little one might like.  When one goes about changing their home language, there is nothing harder to break than habits and more than once there will be slip ups. Make your child an actor of your journey:

  • Turn him into your language police by signaling the slip ups – remember how kids love to correct grown ups 😉
  • Create an ml piggy-bank– for each slip up, the grown-up culprit will insert a coin, which in the long run will reward your child with a little present…in ml, of course! 😉
  1. Parents set the example – If you do not abide by the rule, your child will follow your lead. You cannot ask them to make efforts if you do not do so yourself.  Consistency is the key. 

To this day, we are 3 families with a positive experience with this Flags Technique.  So, if you too are in a situation of raising a little passive bilingual monkey, and you wish to transition to active bilingualism, why not give it a shot? In the worst case it might not work, but in the best case your child might start using the ml … 😉  

If you do try it and it works for you,  please do let us know! The more you share about it, the more inspiration it is to help other bilingual parents 😉

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