By Corey Heller
It’s late, I’m tired and I just want my little bilingual buggers to put on their PJ’s, brush their little teeth and get some Z’s. I don’t want to mess around with begging and pleading and explaining why 10:00 is so very much later than 9:00 and that just because they don’t have to be anywhere the next day (the glories of homeschooling) doesn’t mean that they can stay up all night.
I’d like to say that I calmly walk into the living room, kneel down to their eye-level, touch them gently on the shoulder and encourage them to put on their pajamas, brush their teeth and hop into bed.
But I don’t.
Instead I yell it from the kitchen (in German, of course), with an annoyed tone. I have that authoritative, “I’m the boss” tone. You know the one I mean? The one that says, “I make the rules here, you need to follow them and I’m not in the mood for negotiations.”
All would have gone according to plan had it not been for one little snag: my native-speaking German husband, who heard me yelling across the house, took the opportunity to correct my incorrectly spoken German sentence. Arghhh.
Let me just say that my husband is wonderful. Over the years I have encouraged him to correct my German and he has done so continually with kindness and gentleness. He has helped me maintain my German and, in many respects, improve it. I am so very appreciative for all of his effort and encouragement.
However, that having been said…
When I am in a grumpy mood, when I am tired and cranky, when I am trying to get a specific point across, then I don’t take my husband’s German language lessons with the same eagerness as when I am sitting in the back yard on a sunny day sipping an iced tea.
What does this have to do with raising bilingual children?
Just as we adults can respond both positively and negatively to our loved ones correcting our language mistakes, our children will also respond differently based on their particular mood. If our child returns from school and rushes in to tell us an exciting story about how a zoo keeper brought a real, live snake to his class, and instead of letting our child finish the story we interrupt him every step of the way to correct his grammar or vocabulary or pronunciation, our child may bit-by-bit stop telling us stories. He may even start to feel uncomfortable and annoyed when talking to us. Our children want to know that they matter more than a language, any language, no matter what.
Does this mean that we should never correct our children’s language mistakes?
No way! We should definitely correct our children’s language mistakes but we should do it in a way that feels natural and blends in well with our everyday conversations. We need to get a good feel for the conversation we are in with our child and then add our corrections seamlessly. This isn’t always easy to do and it has more to do with our patience and self-control than anything else. And sometimes we need to just skip correcting our child’s mistakes all together and leave it for a later discussion. Validating our children as human beings is far more important than perfect grammar. We sometimes forget that we have language to communicate and connect, not just as a skill to be mastered.
Here are some tips for correcting our children’s language mistakes without pain and suffering:
1. Repeat the sentence correctly
While your child is telling you what she has to say, you can nod and repeat her sentences but with the correct sentence structure/vocabulary/verb tense, etc. You are not interrupting. In fact, you are validating what she said and showing that you are listening by repeating parts of what she said. And she, in return, is hearing it corrected. This is definitely the way I recommend most to parents. In fact, sometimes our children will surprise us by willingly repeating our corrected sentences back to us before continuing on with their story.
2. Facial expression and body language are key
It is important that when you do the correcting that you pay attention to your body language and facial expressions. Your child is picking up far more about how you really feel about the mistake than what you actually say. Is your face relaxed when you correct your child’s language or does it have a look of annoyance or disappointment? Is your body turned toward your child and showing that you are engaged in the conversation or are you turned away? If you show that you are fully present to your child as she is telling you what she has to say, then your correction will be more readily accepted and heard.
3. Discuss the language mistake later
If your child does make a language mistake over and over again, feel free to discuss it but don’t do it right when she is making the mistake. Start by discussing the mistake separately from when your child has used it in a sentence. Maybe you can bring it up at the dinner table: “Emma, I notice that you often say things like this ___ when actually we say it like this ____ .” That way the mistake is pointed out but it doesn’t interrupt the flow of her sharing information with you.
4. Have fun comparing languages
Often our children are making mistakes because they are mixing grammar or words between languages. Remember that language mixing is not necessarily a bad thing! In fact, researchers believe that it can indicate a higher level of language mastery – but we’ll save that for another post. The point here is that our children are bilingual and thus they are using the language tools which they have on hand to make themselves understood. Have fun talking with them about the different ways things are said between the languages. Discuss which language structures come from one language but are being used in the other language.
These are only a few ways that you can help correct your child’s language mistakes. Of course there are more formal ways such as practicing declensions or verb tenses. Just make sure that you are keeping the living part in your bilingual family life. It is very easy to fall back into the language learning pattern where we feel that we need to train our children in our languages rather than simply be the example that we’d like them to emulate.
If you find that your children are picking up language mistakes from you, don’t worry! Just work on your own language skills and it is very likely that your children will start picking up the corrections. And if not, then follow the points above to help them out a bit. Don’t hesitate to let your children know about your own language mistakes. Our children delight in the fact that we too can make mistakes, both in language and in general!
Do you have additional tips on how to help correct your children’s language mistakes? How do your children respond to the different ways that you correct their language mistakes? Are you a non-native speaker whose children pick up incorrect language patterns from you?