Our children are our greatest teachers. If only we’re willing to listen. Here is an example – my daughter, Emma, is 4 years old and started her first year at Dutch primary school in March. The input from the last few months at preschool and her exposure to the rich language environment at school, combined with her enthusiasm for making new friends, has resulted in a remarkable improvement in her Dutch language skills and fluency. She also takes great pride in assuming a teacher role and helping my husband and me with our Dutch. We talk about what words mean, using all our languages as well as props and pictures to clarify meaning. She teaches us pronunciation by (trying to) break(ing) down the words into syllables, so we “hear and understand it better”. We ask her questions, sometimes pretending to have forgotten something she taught us a while before. Throughout these simple yet incredibly powerful activities, she not only feels in charge and proud that she is able to teach the adults something useful, but she is also actively working with language by using her full (linguistic) repertoire to activate, understand and explain concepts.
Does she thrive in her role as a teacher? Does she feel proud of herself for being able to help us, the adults, with something useful? Do these activities boost her language awareness and learning? Yes! Yes! and Yes!
That’s pretty much what child agency is – the active role children play in their own (language) development. Agency and the role children (are allowed to) play on their own language journey is one of the decisive factors that influences the family language dynamic. By allowing our children to be a driving force in a process that affects their lives, we acknowledge their abilities, knowledge and perspectives while empowering them to take an active role in shaping their own life. Unfortunately, agency often carries a negative connotation and is synonymous with defiance and disobedience. Many people perceive it as acting out or not listening. But if we dare to view it as opportunity and honour our children’s capacity to inquire, actively discover, create their own preferences and source motivation from them, we will be able to utilise their agency and contribute to our family language goals.
Below are seven easy ways you can start with:
- Encourage your child to express themselves in all their languages.
Regardless of the language management strategy you have chosen at home, odds are that your child will mix their languages and often respond to you in the “wrong” language. In these instances, it is important not to correct every single “mistake” they make and trust the fact that this is a normal part of the language acquisition process. Allow your child to choose the language they respond in, because that will also give you ideas about areas that are lacking in your target language and your child – a sense of control over their own language management and use. It will boost their confidence as a multilingual child.
2. Involve your child in decisions related to language management.
Making your child an active part of your family language planning process is crucial in helping them truly live their agency. No matter the age, they need to feel involved in all the decisions pertaining to family language management, which will help them develop a positive relationship with all their languages.
3. Don’t compare your child’s bilingualism to others’.
Comparing your child’s bilingual development to others’ is simply put – toxic. It can not only have a detrimental effect on their language development but also diminish their confidence and motivation to learn and use any of their languages. Every child develops language skills at their own pace, therefore, focus on their process and celebrate their progress and efforts. This will set them up for success.
4. Provide books and media in your child’s languages.
Providing access to various books, educational videos or apps in all your child’s languages, encouraging language play and creating a language-rich environment will inspire and motivate them to explore these resources, learn and engage with them at their own pace. Have them choose what they find interesting and talk about the reasons for their choices. You can use this feedback when discussing your family language goals and plans. Are they choosing certain resources because they feel more confident in the language or because the topic sparks interest?
5. Enlist community support and offer activities in your child’s languages.
Encourage your child to participate in community events and activities that promote all their languages and cultures. Seek out age-appropriate language learning opportunities in the community, such as sports, other recreational activities or community events. Arrange playdates with other children, so they can practise their languages and create social connections and bonds using them.
6. Expose your child to a world of cultural exploration.
Whenever doable, help your child to explore their cultural heritage by giving them an opportunity to acquaint themselves with music, literature, movies, and other media in the respective languages. Celebrate cultural traditions and festivals, pertaining to all your child’s languages and cultures together. In our family, we celebrate both Easter and Orthodox Easter, for example. My children love the former because of all the chocolate eggs which are not traditional in the Bulgarian Orthodox Easter. Similar family traditions will encourage your child to learn more about their cultural identity and will reinforce the connection to their cultural heritage in each language. It might also inspire them to talk about it in another one of their languages, e.g., at school.
7. Be a role model.
Actions speak louder than words. Even if you don’t notice it, your child sees every little thing that you do and hears everything that you say, they read all your facial expressions and gestures, and translate them in a way that is relevant for their little universe. That is how they learn. Be a role model – use your languages, talk about your language choices and preferences, and ask about theirs. Talk about mistakes you’ve made and triumphs you’ve celebrated. Compare and contrast, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, because your vulnerability will empower your child.
Agency can be a very powerful tool to enhance your child’s language development. We, as parents and caregivers, should not be afraid of letting them explore and live it. It is not defiance. It is not disobedience. It is a quest of exploration and an effort to feel more in control of their language development and use by familiarising themselves with their own language preferences and interests. Utilising your child’s agency will boost their confidence and can contribute immensely to the success of your family language goals. Start today and watch them bloom!
- Fogle, L. W. and King, K. A. (2013) ‘Child agency and language policy in transnational families’, Issues in Applied Linguistics, 19, pp.1-25.
- Smith-Christmas, C. (2021) ‘Using a ‘Family Language Policy’ lens to explore the dynamic and relational nature of child agency’, Children & Society, 00, pp.1-15.
- Smith-Christmas, C. (2020) ’11. Child agency and home language maintenance’, in Schalley, A. C. and Eisenchlas, S. A. (eds.) Handbook of home language maintenance and development. Social and affective factors. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter Mouton, pp.218-235.
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