“How can my child speak Greek?” This is the most common language-related concern Greek parents have while living outside Greece.
Well, it’s true that when children enter school, Greek might unfortunately go out the window, giving its place to the mainstream language - which usually happens to be the school language, in our case, English.
In our family, our eldest started speaking English at home as soon as she entered her second year at kindergarten.
I’d lied if I told you I expected such a sudden turn and strong preference to English. After all, she wasn’t even born in Canada.
Of course, kids are smart people; they know when a language is mostly used so they need to find a reason to speak the less used one. Especially if parents understand the mainstream language; what’s the point in speaking in Greek?
We, as parents, know the point. In fact, for many of us, helping our children learn and use their Greek, is part of our mission as parents.
We want our children to:
speak to their grandparents and family in Greek,
connect with their family heritage,
become bilingual, for all the educational, social and cognitive benefits we know bilingualism offers.
Our family story had a wonderful outcome, since our daughter does speak Greek with us and the rest of the family in Greece.
It didn’t magically happen though, nor do I think our family is some kind of language Einsteins. In the contrary, it took a lot of work.
Don’t worry about working hard though; that’s good news, because it all depends on your goals and motivation (same as with every language learning situation); it doesn’t depend on special, super-power owning genes.
Here’s what we did at home, which played an important role in her bilingualism:
1. Stay consistent
I think the most important thing we did, was the one thing we didn’t do: We managed to not be tempted to reply in English.
For us, as Greeks coming from Greece, it was a natural thing to do; it’s not the case for everyone (nor the choice) and I understand that; it's completely fine.
However, if you started speaking to your child in Greek at birth, or when she was very young, keep it up. Don’t switch to the other language, not even when your partner doesn’t speak Greek. Stick to it.
Another thing we did consistently and can be adapted to whatever your family language(s) are, was reading before bedtime.
There are several ways to read a story and learn / enhance Greek learning:
the dual language reading technique, where we used both languages in one story,
Greek only or English only, usually for the same story, in alternate days,
...and I even asked my daughter to translate what I was reading, which was the most surprising and fun thing to do (not to mention it made me so proud of how much she had learned).
2. Have Fun
With kids, it’s all about play…
We ‘ve added more songs in Greek, songs with moves, the weekly movie in Greek and made crafts (which she loved) just to make sure she gets exposure to a broader vocabulary that actually interests her.
Interesting for children means fun and vice versa.
You child loves soccer? Or dance? Then creating a Greek speaking environment where your child can have fun with his favourite activities is another important thing to consider.
3. Nurture and Care
Of course you nurture your child and care for her.
How about her Greek?
Imagine Greek as a living thing (you've probably heard how languages are living things, changing and adapting? Same principle.):
The more you care, the more you’ll see his Greek “grow”, meaning your child will use it more and more, adding words and trying to find the words he doesn’t know.
Next steps and some things to consider:
Approach your child’s competency in Greek with care and set realistic expectations; bribing might work temporarily but sets no foundation for learning Greek with enthusiasm and interest.
Being too demanding has the same, if not worse, results; avoid demanding from your child to speak “Greek only”; she’s after all learning how to use 2 or more languages, which is probably the same thing you did as a kid.
Asking “Greek or nothing” is our desperate cry for immediate results, not a patient approach.
And patience pays off, I can promise you that.
With these in mind, set your goals.
If your goal is for your child to speak with you and her grandparents in Greek, then make time for actually doing so.
If your goal is for your family to use all languages and for your child to learn how to read and write in Greek, go for it. Trust your child and the process; it might take time but it is definitely worth the effort.
And let me know: What do you do at home that is effective?