Fun Ways to Engage Your Family in Bilingual and Multilingual Literacy This Summer

“At least 220 languages are spoken in California, and 44% of residents speak a language other than English at home.” – The Los Angeles Times

That’s just a drop in the bucket of the over 6,000 languages that are spoken around the world. As we become more global, learning another language to communicate with the rest of the non-English speaking world is an important decision to make, not only for financial and future business opportunities but also because research shows that learning another language can also improve your child’s academic performance. Expanding your child’s language skills is good for brain and social development, too! There’s a social benefit of living in such a rich and culturally diverse world. Learning another language and understanding other cultures is important in getting along in today’s multicultural and multilingual climate.

As a biracial (Mexican and African American) woman who moved to California from Hawaii, I lived with my Spanish-speaking grandparents and had to learn Spanish against a backdrop of discouragement from the school system. Today, I am married to my Korean husband and together we have four children we are raising in a multicultural and multilingual household. I know firsthand the fun and challenging path to new language acquisition. There is no one way or right way to learn a new language. As parents, we have to listen to and read the factual information available to us, and then pick and choose which methods work best for ourselves and our families.

Let’s get this out of the way — learning another language can be challenging! But how can we, as parents and caregivers, make the process easier (for everyone) and more enjoyable for our children? Here are some of my suggestions for methods and motivational tools used to teach kids a new language based on decades of trial and error, cheers and tears.

Help get your young children excited about learning a new language. Los Angeles contains many ethnic enclaves to explore, so take the time to check them out. Get out and explore music, foods and cultural events. Look online for interesting facts to inspire them to learn and understand other people’s lives, what they do and where they come from. For example, while gearing up for learning Korean, my family took a trip to Koreatown and visited the Korean Cultural Center. Our kids are learning Korean drums and took Taekwondo after school.

Take a step into a new language through lifestyle and cultural immersion. We’re lucky enough to live in a city that has museums and theaters dedicated to exploring the artistic contributions of diverse cultures, like La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, the Japanese American Museum and the Chinese American Museum. If your family is learning English, visit places like the California African American Museum, the Autry, or the Craft and Folk Art Museum to experience a different slice of English-speaking American history and culture. Learning dance styles together as a family at events like Ford Theatres’ free JAM sessions can also be a fun experience. Take a walking tour of Chinatown or visit L.A.’s street art and murals in different communities. Practice some of the new words that you’re using while you’re enjoying your day trip!

Normalize learning. We saw better results once we stopped trying to teach our children in a sit-down manner and instead just talked together and included the language we were learning into our everyday life. Create a household game where at any time of the day you switch to using only the language you are learning for a period of time. Set the timer and stay committed to speaking another language. Fun tip: Use that time to Skype with family members who may speak the language you are learning.

Make learning language more engaging. Studying books is fine, but at some point we had to put the books aside and mix it up a bit. Here are some of the things we did that may work for you too:

  • Look out for specialty classes at your local library or Parks and Rec center.
  • Is there an art, fashion, music or dance class taught in a foreign language or in a setting where another language is heard?
  • Create flashcard games to match new words and phrases with pictures, like the old memory game.
  • Choose language-learning mobile apps they can look at while on road trips or traveling this summer.
  • Read books and check out coloring pages. These are fun and more widely available now than ever before. We Need Diverse Books™ is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that offers resources and awesome book selections to add to your summer reading list.
  • Check out your local library for language classes, book readings or audio programs.
  • Explore YouTube for fun videos in other languages.
  • Organize language playdates with friends with the same goal of language acquisition.
  • Perhaps there are pen pal opportunities among your friends or family members that can encourage writing skills.
  • Research and join multicultural parenting and caregiver Facebook groups that can offer suggestions.
  • Music is a great way to encourage learning in a fun way. K-pop and Reggaeton work well in our home.
  • Check out TV shows and videos that introduce different cultures and languages. We love learning about Africa with Bino & Fino. Older kids may like dramas like Korean dramas or Spanish telenovelas. Start with subtitles. Warning: they’re addictive!

Now what? What can you do to keep your children learning their new language(s) beyond summer?

Look for dual-language immersion schools. L.A. is home to over 100 dual-language schools. Take a look and find out if they are right for your child. My kids are in a Korean/English dual-language program during the school year. During the summer, we go over their books and assignments to prevent summer slide.

The road to multilingualism may be bumpy along the way, but like all educational endeavors the destination is well worth it. Hopefully these tips will help make your family’s journey toward learning a new language a little more fun!

Sonia Smith-Kang is a Registered Nurse, educator and a prominent social justice activist promoting, empowering and showcasing the multiracial experience. As a social entrepreneur, she is the founder of Mixed-Up Clothing and cofounder of MultiCulti Corner and Mixed Heritage Day. Being a proud military brat, Third Culture Kid (TCK) and mama to a special-needs daughter have all helped guide her life’s mission and built the foundation of her work to increase diversity and inclusion. Being an Afro-Latina born in Puerto Rico and living in Oahu added to her rich cultural experience and is evident in her work as a writer, advocate, influencer, frequent guest and authority on multiculturalism for the media. Sonia calls L.A. home and is married to her Korean American husband. Together they have four children they are raising as “mini global citizens” — learning, loving and laughing their way through the world. Follow Sonia on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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