In this guest post, Erika of Montessori & Multilingual shares her best tips on creating an environment where young children can learn other languages in the most natural and authentic way.
The sage words of Dr. Maria Montessori ring especially true for multilingual families. As she put it, “the development of language is part of the development of the personality, for words are the natural means of expressing thoughts and establishing understanding between people.” Thus, language development becomes tied to our personality and the way we express our thoughts and feelings. In multicultural families, much of our culture is tied to our native languages as well. Below I share some tips that have worked for our little trilingual family. Pick & choose what works best for your family or add your own ideas in the comments below!
7 Tips for Multilingual Learning
1. Adapt traditional 3-part cards for learning multilingual vocabulary.
The traditional Montessori Early Childhood 3-Part Card consists of a card with a picture with a word label, a card of just the picture, and a card with just the word label. In our multilingual family, we adapted this method by adding the additional native language vocabulary side-by-side to expose our daughter to the same object but in 3 different languages that we speak at home, Spanish, Russian, & English. For example, now that Spring is here and my daughter loves flowers, we will be gardening in our yard. I created a set of Plant Life Cycle 3-part cards that feature the 4 stages from seed to adult plant. I included (4) 3-part cards with bilingual vocabulary & (4) bilingual flashcards with descriptions. Since my daughter is only 2 years old, I read the description to her in my native language Spanish, her father reads the descriptions to her in Russian (his native language), while she connects the picture and words in multiple languages.
2. Take advantage of your child’s interests to fuel Multilingual Learning.
If your child is interested in cars or trucks, for example, you could create activities that highlight Transportation in multiple languages. For example, use 3-part cards with multilingual vocabulary like road, street, highway, parking lot, gas station, street sign, etc. The cards would show these Transportation vocab words in 2 or more languages like English & Spanish, for example. The key is to use what your child is already interested in to fuel their desire to learn about it in multiple languages. Right now, my daughter is super interested in animals & the sounds they make. I created this Bilingual Animal Silhouette Matching Game to help her match & name the animals in Spanish & English.
3. Sing songs in the native language.
Research has shown that listening to music helps with memorization. Thus, singing new words can make them easier to remember. From the time my daughter was in utero, I would sing songs in Spanish that my mother used to sing to me as a child. I still remember the soothing sound of my mother’s voice singing us Spanish lullabies before bedtime. I have carried on this tradition with my own daughter, our way of passing down our Latin American culture through song. Now that my daughter is 2 years old, when I sing to her in Spanish, I see a noticeable shift in her mood as she calms down before bedtime or smiles to sing along with me during our daily routine. At the same time, she is hearing & absorbing vocabulary that she wouldn’t normally hear in our daily conversations.
4. Watch shows in the native language.
Every family has their own opinion on screen time and of course, you must do what’s in the best interest of your family. If your family allows some screen time, this can definitely be used for multilingual learning purposes. For example, Netflix allows you to change the language (subtitles & audio) on certain programs. My daughter loves to watch “Little Baby Bum” and we sing along to the different nursery rhymes in Spanish. When she visits her grandmother on the weekend, she sings & listens to those same songs in Russian. She is hearing & developing her fluency based on rhyming words in multiple languages. It’s a beautiful thing. TV will never replace hearing you speak & interact with your child in your native language, but it can offer a boost to multilingual learning.
5. Cook together.
Practical life skills are a wonderful way to engage in multilingual learning. Recently, my daughter and I have started cooking together. For example, she helps me bake cookies, cut strawberries, peel eggs, scoop ingredients, & pour water. Cooking can be a time for you to teach your little one new vocabulary at a time when they are most engaged. While you are using words in your native language to describe what you are cooking, the vegetables you are chopping, the fruits you are peeling, your little one is holding those very same physical objects in their hands, facilitating memorization & oral fluency.
6. Read books in the native language with your little one.
There is no secret that reading aloud to your little one helps improve language development. It is even more true with multilingual learning. Reading books in your native language exposes your child to different vocabulary that they might not hear in daily conversation. Observe & take note of what interests your child and provide books in your native language that will interest your child. If finding books in your native language is difficult, grab a black permanent marker and write your translated words below or next to the English words. That way, your child can connect oral language with written words. As you are reading the book to them in your native language, they will be able to see your native language in written form to help expand their vocabulary.
7. Make multilingual learning fun!
Get outdoors with your family for nature walks. Maybe organize a weekly scavenger hunt outside or around the house. You could label common objects around the house in your native language and then ask your child to connect the Spanish label to the English object around the house. Encourage the use of puzzles to connect bilingual words in meaning for your little one. Below, I created this Spring Nature Puzzle for my daughter with bilingual nature words to connect in Spanish on the left side & English on the right side. She already loves puzzles, so this was an easy way to encourage multilingual learning while making it fun for her!
I’d love to see how you adapt these tips for your multilingual family or classroom. Please tag #MontessoriMultilingual on social media.
About the Author
Hi! I am Erika Doyle from Montessori & Multilingual. As a Chicago public school elementary teacher for 8 years, I gravitated toward Montessori once my daughter was born in 2018. My husband and I are raising her trilingual, speaking Spanish, Russian & English at home. In 2020, I launched my online Etsy shop to create handmade Montessori materials for multilingual learning at: www.MontessoriMulti.etsy.com
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