A lockdown silver lining? Home languages

By Christy Brewster, BM Edinburgh Centre Adminstrator

As the global coronavirus health crisis goes on, many of us are confined to our homes with children who are unable to attend school. For those of us in multilingual households, this is an opportunity to increase our children’s exposure to their second, third or even fourth languages, boosting their fluency and confidence. As well as children spending more time speaking home languages with their parents and other household members, there are easy ways to further increase exposure in this age of digital technology.

Several online companies are offering their multilingual products for free during the lockdown (Audible has audio books in several languages and MantraLingua has nice range of children’s books for free in the UK until 31st August). Others that have always been free are worth exploring now that there’s more time (Global Storybooks and World Stories are both excellent sites).

A fantastic resource that my own children benefit from is their bored grandparents in lockdown, on the other side of the world in Argentina. They now video chat most days for at least an hour, send audio file bedtime stories and even sometimes watch TV together. Here are a few video chat activities to try with extended family or friends who speak your home languages.

  • Games: there are so many games that can be played on video chats. One of the simplest that is fun for all ages and a good vocabulary builder is called ‘Stop the Bus’ (or Tutti Frutti in Argentina). Players agree on four or five categories like colours, food, countries etc., and then list as many as they can for randomly selected letters.
  • Family tree: this gives the extended family something to research – memories and photos to dig out, and children love hearing stories about their ancestors (even if it is only to laugh at the weird names!). Websites like Ancestry are free with options for language choice and shared access, or keep it simple with one of many free templates available online.
  • Drawing tutorials: there are loads of video drawing tutorials in multiple languages. Just search “how to draw” on YouTube in your home language. As well as all the new vocabulary that can be learned from following the instructions in the video, both sides can pause together and discuss what they’re doing, then compare drawings at the end.
  • Children’s TV: tune into the children’s TV or video channels from other countries, there are loads on YouTube. Argentinian channel PakaPaka is a treasure trove of interesting programmes, from science and history, to animals and cartoons. It’s great content for children to watch and discuss in their home language.

One word of caution is to keep it fun and natural for the children. My idea of requesting little maths problems set by my children’s grandmother seemed perfect in my head, but the kids found it frustrating and refused to connect with her for a couple of days. If something doesn’t work out, move on – the last thing you want to do is disrupt existing bonds by introducing a forced element that has unhappy associations.

In these unusual and often difficult times, multilingual families can at least benefit from the increased exposure to home languages and, with a little luck, might get the added bonus of virtual childminders. It’s also the perfect opportunity to build stronger online connections with extended family and friends around the world who can continue to support the development of children’s home language skills well beyond the lockdown.

We would love to hear suggestions of other activities and strategies that have worked in your homes! Please leave them in the comments or connect with us on our social media platforms. 
Twitter: @bilingmatters
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Other sites listing resources to help families with languages during lockdown:
SCILT (Scotland’s National Centre for Languages)
EAL Journal from the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum