There are various reasons why we relocate and when we do, we want to integrate into the new society as well as possible. Trying to learn the local language, for instance, is one fail-safe way to do just that. For our children, however, mastering the societal language becomes an essential and indispensable part of integration since it is fundamental for schooling, building friendships and just fitting in. While we highly encourage and support that process as parents, we worry that through it a part of their heritage will be lost as they adapt to the host environment and develop a new identity. One of the main concerns for bi-/multilingual families is that home-language development might suffer as well. Being able to cultivate an age-appropriate level in our own language is a reliable way to sustain a connection to our roots, honour our heritage and preserve this part of our identity. Speaking our language/s at home, teaching it to our children and supporting them in developing proficiency, is an infallible way to help them understand where they come from, introduce them to their heritage and foster pride in it. In addition, becoming literate in the home language inevitably supports literacy in the school language as well.

But how do we adequately do this? Maintaining a high amount of quality input is key. As I mentioned in my previous post on reading, talking to our children as much as possible is fantastic because mastering listening and speaking builds the foundation for reading, and the amount of vocabulary acquired in the process is an important prerequisite for developing reading skills. But spoken language, especially in the context of home and family, eventually becomes limited and repetitive, often revolving around similar topics. It means that, even when we strive to talk a lot with our children, we end up using the same vocabulary and sentence structures, for example. Reading, on the other hand, is a wonderful resource, presenting a wealth of topics, vocabulary, ideas, concepts and ways of expression – all puzzle pieces, needed to master a language.

However, as straightforward and easy as all this sounds, it can be highly demanding to incorporate meaningful and consistent reading time with our children, in a language different from the dominating school language, while juggling jobs, school, childcare, household, family, friends and, well, our sanity. Especially as our children get older, the school workload increases and they develop a more pronounced personality, their own interests and friendships. Remember – every little bit of reading counts but we need to plan. So, below are some strategies that might help you on the way.

  1. Prepare

One of the biggest hurdles you might be facing is the lack of resources in your home language, so preparation is vital, particularly if you live in an area where your home language is not very easily accessible. Having books at home that match your child’s interests at every stage of their development might be rather difficult, so make sure you buy a variety of books, magazines, etc. when you visit your home country. Alternatively, if possible, order some online to a family member’s or a friend’s address and have them send the materials to you, if the online shop does not offer international delivery. You could also join different communities (not necessarily close to where you live) and exchange resources. Finally, you might find interesting and relatable materials on the internet as well.

  1. Make reading fun

Children need to be presented with purposeful opportunities to acquire and practise literacy in their home language, especially as they get older. Amassing a lot of books to create a ‘library experience’ is indeed a great idea but by far not enough when it comes to home-language reading. Children need to learn to perceive reading as an enjoyable pastime for its own sake which will facilitate the long-term reading practice. It needs to be fun, so your child (especially your older child!) would choose to do it on top of everything else they have going on in their life. For example, books and magazines that are only available in your home language or such pertaining to specific topics of interest to them.

  1. Watching could be reading too

How? Add subtitles! Nowadays, a lot of the streaming services offer subtitles in a variety of languages and you can take advantage of that. Opt for subtitles in your home language and add them to some of your child’s favourite programmes in the society language. It might look and feel rather unusual at first but make sure to give it some time. Watching a show that is interesting to your child and incorporating subtitles in your home language could be a powerful source of learning – following a topic of interest, learning vocabulary and practising reading – all at the same time. They might try to ignore the subtitles for a while because they bother them but, eventually, they’ll come around and read along.

  1. Include older siblings, if possible

Children love to learn from other children and having an older sibling read to the younger child could be a mighty motivator. Reading the words, discussing the story, pictures and characters, even playing school together could be some activities that would apply the older child’s knowledge and provide practice for them too while serving as a role model to the younger one. Let reading in the home language be yet another thing the younger child copies from their older sibling!

  1. Utilise simple everyday tasks to practise reading

Everyday activities could serve as resources for reading practice as well. Take cooking, for example. You can try and teach your child how to cook a traditional dish from your home country (or any other dish they like). Have them read the recipe in your home language as you go along and discuss the ingredients, steps, etc. You can use both your home language and the school language, depending on your child’s language skills, to clarify the nuances of meaning, thus teaching them new vocabulary as well. And, no, mixing of languages will not confuse them. Just the opposite – it will be a teaching moment that their languages are connected and an asset they can tap when they feel doubtful.

Strategically utilising a child’s interests in order to motivate and inspire them to read in the home language is crucial. Why would one read a book in a language different than the one they feel most comfortable reading in – because it looks super interesting and is not readily available in another language, because it’s in the original language or maybe because someone they look up to recommended it? What would your reasons be? What would motivate you?

Last but not least, reading is a gradual process and takes time, so don’t be discouraged and keep trying to engage your child! Every seemingly small bit of reading is still reading that provides for practice and builds on the habit. The persistence will pay off by ensuring your child will not ‘lose’ their home language and will also help them with literacy in the societal language.

Photo by Ben White on