In the fall, I often see social media posts from immigrant parents regarding this issue: a child starts school without knowing the language used at school (e.g. English in most of Canada), and now is stressed and screams (in the heritage language): “I don’t want to go to school! I don’t understand them! They don’t understand me!” Or when the family recently immigrated. The parents don’t know if it will pass on its own, or they have to do something. Every such post receives an avalanche of comments, including many like “our kid also started school without English, and didn’t have any problems”, “nothing to worry about”, “you should worry about the heritage language instead”, and only a handful of comments like “we had the same issue”.

This post is for parents who have the same issue. It’s about how to help the child to learn the new language and cope with the stress (I will post a separate post on how not to lose the heritage language when starting school).

My first child had “the same issue” with English (back then, I was still a graduate student and there were so many things I didn’t know). With our next child, we already did what I now recommend to parents at my workshops: prepared for school beforehand, gradually introducing English, which included sending her to a daycare with both English- and Russian-speaking teachers.

But the fall is already here. The kids are already at school. What can we do?

1. Take it seriously and don’t listen to those who say it’s not a problem.

Yes, there are children, who, according to their parents, enter the new language environment without any problems. But your child is different. This often happens to children who speak their first language very well for their age. They are used to being able to express in words anything they want, and now they can’t do it! Yes, the problem is temporary. Typically, in a few months, children start somehow communicating in the new language. But the child is stressed, and therefore needs help.

2. Explain to the child what is happening.

Comfort the child by explaining that soon they will understand everything at school and talk to everyone, because little children learn languages very fast (it’s true - excep that these few months may feel very long for the child).

It’s very important to explain to your child that the new language is not instead of the old one, but in addition to it, and that you, the parents, will continue speaking the heritage language. And that your child will grow up speaking both languages well.

3. Help the child to learn the new language.

If possible - find someone who will teach your child. Even if you are fully fluent in that language, it’s best not to teach your child yourself, so that not to break the association between you and the heritage language (why it’s important - see (10)). That person doesn’t have to be a certified teacher. Any fluent speaker is fine, even a teenager next door. This person will need to talk to and play with the child several times per week - at least three, but every day is best. At this age (typically 4-6 years old, depending on the country and province) you can’t make the childsit at the table and memorize verb tenses. Little kids learn via immersion and/or games. The child’s school already provides immersion, but more one-on-one communication is needed, more repetitions, and more focus on a smaller number of words. For example, when playing hide-and-seek, we name the hiding places. When doing crafts, we name all the actions. Use of visual aids like gestures, movement, toys, props, pictures helps the child understand.

If it’s impossible to find someone outside the family, you’ll have to teach your child yourself, but in this case, either use a special toy who “speaks” the language, or have a designated place and/or time for learning. You need to distance yourself from the majority language so that the child doesn’t lose the habit of speaking the heritage language with you.

Recommendations 4-6 are for the person who will teach your child the new language.

4. Teach the child the “survival words and expressions” in case the child needs help at school.

These include the expressions like:

5. Teach words and expressions that are commonly used at school.

You may need to ask your child’s teacher what they are. But you will likely need to teach:

6. Role-play - pretend you are at school

Pretend that you and the child are at school, and play situations that actually happen at school. Switch roles so that the child somethimes pretends to be a teacher, and sometimes a student. In these games, the child can use new words and expressions, or, rather, learn and remember them through the games.

7. Read books in the school language and in the home language to the child.

Read half of the books in each language, or slightly more in the school language (no more than 60/40). The heritage language should not disappear. Also, the child should not be deprived of listening to books for pleasure - and for now, only books in the first language count as listening for pleasure. Listening to books in a new language is hard work.

На языке среды поначалу нужно выбирать книжки простые, где много картинок, на каждую картинку мало текста, и много повторов. Если есть рифма – ещё лучше. Каждую книжку читать несколько раз. Читая, можно показывать на соответствующие части картинки, а в следующий раз просить ребёнка показывать. At first, books in the new language should be simple, with many pictures, a small amount of text per picture, and many repetitions. If it’s rhyming - great. Every book should be read several times. As you read to your child, point to the corresponding parts of the picture. Next time you read the same book, ask the child to point at the picture.

8. Watch cartoons with your child.

If a cartoon has versions in both languages, it’s a good idea to watch first in the heritage language, and then, already knowing who says what, in the school language. Watch together several times It is also great to enact the cartoon in pretend play (with words, of course!). And if there is no version in the heritage language, watch it together and explain.

And original cartoons in the heritage language should stay in the child’s life - for rest, for pleasure, and for motivation to keep speaking the heritage language.

9. Learn how children acquire a new language so that you understand what to expect.

In the province of Ontario, for example, children go to Grade 1 when they are 6, but usually their first encounter with school starts at age 4, in Junior Kindergarten. A new language at age 4-6 is learned differently from the first language at birth, but also differently from the way adults learn a second language.

What is this process like? At first, children might try to use their first language until they realize that others don’t understand. Then they stay silent and listen. This silent period may last several weeks. More talkative children start talking earlier. Little “perfectionists”, on the opposite, later. When they start speaking, they omit short function words (“a”, “the”, “of”, “is”, etc.), like toddlers, despite speaking their first language at the age-appropriate level. Then they make various other errors. (Some examples from English: “Sit chair yummy eat”; “Why Natasha coming no?”; “I put on the bed her”). But what their monolingual peers learned in their 4-6 first years of life will take them less time. On average, in the second half of the first school year, they will already build grammatically correct sentences. There will be errors, and they might persist for a while. They will be behind their peers in terms of vocabulary for the first few years. It will take several years to catch up with their peers completely (to stop making errors, to have a rich vocabulary, to build long complex sentences).

10. Keep speaking the heritage language with your child, and keep the heritage language environment.

Do not switch to the majority language completely. Do not break your child’s habit to speak the heritage language to you - it will be very difficult to get it back. As soon as the child stops speaking the heritage language, or even starts speaking it less, language attrition (forgetting) starts, and the younger the child, the faster. And at this age, the child needs not to “preserve” the heritage language, but to develop it further. And, importantly, the child needs to have a language in which it feels comfortable to communicate. Because starting school is a huge change for any child, and at least something in this changing world of the child needs to be stable. Moreover, the child needs the first language for the general cognitive development. Unfortunately, the situation when a child doesn’t speak any language well is real (the new language is not learned yet, but the old one is already gradually being forgotten), and seeing such children is really sad. Also, for social development, and to have some rest after school, your child needs playdates with other children who speak the same first language (because it may be difficult to make friends with someone who you cannot talk to). And, of course, cartoons, books, and talking to parents in the heritage language - all this is necessary for the child’s psychological comfort (let alone further development of the heritage language).

11. Remember that soon you will have new problems: keeping a balance between languages.

But we’ll discuss this in the next post.

Good luck!

Marina Sherkina-Lieber, Ph.D