10 Ways to Promote Oral Language Development in a Multilingual Environment (Ages 0-3)

I’ve been asked a few times to do a post about how I promote oral language at home, particularly since we are a bilingual household. My husband is Japanese and speaks Japanese to my now two-year old son and I speak primarily English. At two years old, my son is able to have conversations in English using a variety of sentences and words and his Japanese isn’t far behind. I think language does come naturally to him (possibly because he’s a Gemini rising?) but we have actively worked to promote oral language at home as much as possible from day one.

Since we plan to send him to Japanese school in the future, we have focused primarily on encouraging his English in the first two years. This includes having him go to an English-speaking preschool. Although his English is more advanced than his Japanese at this point, I am not concerned. Once he is immersed in Japanese all day from yochien-age, it will soon become evenly matched if not more proficient.

Role playing “post office” at school

The following are ten tips to encourage oral language development at home for 0-3 year olds:

  1. Constantly converse with your child. And I mean constantly! In pre-verbal children, this means explaining/narrating everything you are doing from diaper changes to getting them dressed. For example, “Now we are going to put your socks on. Do you like the yellow socks?” You can give them time to “respond” as if you are having a conversation as well. Their mind is absorbing vocabulary and sentence structure automatically. One other way I did this was through babywearing, which was my main way to transport my son in the first year. I would comment on things I saw as I walked (a beautiful yellow gingko tree for example) and also talk about where we were going and what we would do there. I almost never walked in silence unless he was sleeping! Even now that we don’t babywear as much, I still try to talk to him while he is in the stroller or walking next to me.
  2. When your child speaks to you, always respond. Even if you are cooking or otherwise involved, try to respond to your child when they speak. This encourages them to continue because someone is listening. If you cannot focus on them right away, you can still say something like, “I heard you, can I finish cutting this carrot and then I will listen to what you have to say?” This shows your child that what they have to say is important, but also lets them know they cannot interrupt you at any given moment. Along with this, I also avoid doing engrossing tasks, such as being on my phone or watching TV, while I am with my son. I find it’s easier to respond to him if I am not using a screen.
  3. Restate instead of making corrections. Children using very early language will often use just one word or a short sentence at a time. We can encourage them to continue speaking, no matter if it is correct or not, by simply restating what they mean with correct pronunciation and grammar. For example, if your child says, “Bird eat”, you can respond, “Yes, the bird is eating the seed, isn’t it?” The way you described the situation will be absorbed in their mind for future use.
  4. Limit/avoid screen time. Everyone has their own opinions on this but research shows that language is actually not acquired through screens. Children need a human to interact with to efficiently absorb language. Watching shows in the minority language for example, is not really effective at helping the child learn the language. I used to let my son watch shows in Japanese because I wanted him to get more exposure, however now I prefer to encourage him to partake in more active play at home and just schedule in more time with Japanese speaking friends and family. In probably 4 months of watching Shimajiro while I cooked dinner, I heard him say one new word in Japanese, “Okaasan (mother)”. However, I’m pretty sure he heard kids saying it at school and that is why he actually committed it to memory! For screen time, there is one exception: video chatting! Video chatting with family members or friends is a great way to practice a target language and because it is interactive, it is not in the same category as simply watching Peppa Pig on the iPad.
  5. Try not to “quiz” children under 3 years old. This is a surprising one because it can come so automatically to us as adults. Children under 3 do not need to be “quizzed” for information to be retained. By quizzing I mean asking questions like, “What color is this?”, “What does the dog say?” and praising or correcting based on their answer. Instead of quizzing, it is more effective for language development to simply state the facts. For example, “The car is blue.” Your child absorbs this information and internalizes it. There’s no reason to test them.
  6. Read every day! Everyone knows this but it really is true. Reading every day, especially about topics your child is interested in, is a great way to promote oral language development. If you have books in multiple languages at home, you can either read the story as it is written or tell the story using the pictures in your first language (or whichever one you are focusing on).
  7. Stick to one language per sentence. This can be tough, especially if you mix languages a lot with your partner or family. However, it is important for children to recognize the difference between the languages they are learning. Try not to mix languages in one sentence. For example mixing English and Japanese like with, “It’s a cat, deshou?” Instead, you can just say, “It’s a cat. Neko desu.” If you want to reenforce two languages at once.
  8. Have each parent or family member speak their first language as much as possible with your child. It’s important for children to hear a language spoken by a native speaker for them to develop a native accent. If neither of you are native speakers of a language but you still want your child to have exposure to it, don’t worry! Any exposure is better than none at all. When I was teaching English in a high school in Japan, I was surprised to hear that none of my fellow Japanese teachers of English spoke to their own kids in English even though they could speak the language. For me, it seemed like a missed opportunity.
  9. Create opportunities for your child to use a language socially as much as possible. This can be as simple as attending playdates with speakers of the target language or attending classes and events where people are using it. The key is that their are real people in real contexts using the language, which shows your child that it is actually useful. Video chatting with family members is also a great option if you cannot physically be in their presence.
  10. Try not to force language for kids under 3. Children of this age are automatically absorbing language all day every day, they don’t need any specific instruction to obtain it. By following their interests and involving them in day to day life, they will glean far more vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar than any set of flash cards or other educational materials could give them.
Reading English books with Grandma while visiting the US

A note on bilingualism:

How you choose to divide up time using the different languages in your home is a personal decision. Many bilingual households choose a “one parent one language” approach where each parent speaks their first language exclusively with the child. This is the strategy we generally use in our house. Some families choose to switch to the majority language spoken where they live when they are in public and use their first language at home. There is really no right answer here! Other families speaking more than two languages may find that alternating between languages on different days or using a certain language at a certain time (for example, bath time is English only time) to be effective. The key is to find out what works for your family and staying as consistent as possible.

Playing with his favorite shinkansen (his current obsession) magnet book.
Great Japanese practice!

If you’re looking for more info…

  • Japan Today has an interesting article with more tips for raising bilingual kids in Japan. Read it here.

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