6 Expert Tips to Create a Home Rich for Bilingualism
Updated: May 18, 2019
Evidence-based strategies and practices you can use to create a home that’s language-rich and ripe for bilingualism.
By Haley Gomez, MS candidate, Speech-Language Pathology, NYU
As a graduate student at Speech@NYU, I’m studying to become a speech-language pathologist (SLP). And like many of you, I find myself on a bilingual adventure with my two preschool-aged boys. Completing my master’s degree while simultaneously raising children has been crazy – but also wonderful. It’s a beautiful thing to study language development and view it happening live in front of you with your own kids. For me, it’s even better to see that happen in English and Spanish, which has been my longtime dream.
When you hear “speech-language pathologist” you might immediately think about someone who diagnoses a language delay or disorder. However, SLPs are also deeply educated in language development. For those of us raising bilingual kids, it can be useful to view language development from an SLP’s perspective to learn more about how to help our children communicate in two idiomas.
Here, I’ve included some evidence-based strategies and practices SLP’s use that can help you create a home that’s language-rich and ripe for bilingualism.
Strategy 1: Play
(Bloom & Lahey, 1978; Lahey, 1988; Westby, 2010)
According to Bloom & Lahey (1978) and Westby (2010), the highest level of language complexity in preschoolers occurs in the context of naturalistic play, and many SLP’s use play therapy to facilitate language development. Play therapy is effective not only because it’s interesting and fun to the child, but also because it develops a connection between the child and you – the parent or therapist. This connection helps the child become confident, curious, and motivated in their language learning, and it helps in establishing language routines.
Example: Use manipulable objects, such as a playhouse and characters, and sit on the floor with your child. Follow her lead and model words or short phrases that are appropriate for your child’s level in the target language – the language you’re trying to teach. (For me, this is Spanish.)
Strategy 2: Routines (and sabotage!)
Speaking of routines, this is where your canciones infantiles, your nursery rhymes and everyday songs and sayings, come in. To create opportunities for language growth, use sabotage by messing up a predictable routine – on purpose! You can do this by pretending to forget the words of one of your frequent songs.
Example: Start singing “Los pollitos dicen, pío pío pío, cuando tienen hambre, cuando….” Stop singing, and using an exaggerated facial expression, pretend like you’ve forgotten the words and wait for your child to finish the line: “...tienen frío!”
Strategy 3: Parallel talk
Parallel talk is frequently used for preverbal children, but it can also be applied when working on a second language with your child.
While you’re playing alongside your child, comment in real time about what they’re doing. SLP’s use animated voices with lots of emotion and inflection to help the child understand the emotional meaning behind the words while engaged in play. This technique is useful in developing pragmatic skills while also increasing language complexity.
[English] “Wow, your car is going fast! Go, go, go…oh no! He crashed! He fell down.”
[Spanish] “¡Wow, tu carro va muy rápido! ¡Dale, dale…oh no! ¡Chocó! Se cayó.”
Strategy 4: Extension
(Roberts & Kaiser, 2011)
This strategy takes a child’s utterance and extends it by adding details. I love this strategy because it’s child-directed. It takes what the child says independently and enrichens it, validating what the child has said and giving them the words to express new information about it. Extension helps the child learn more and more complex language, slowly, in their zone of proximal development (defined below).
Example: If my son sees a horse and says: “Es un caballo,” I might say: “¡Sí! Es un caballo. Mira, el caballo corre.”
It’s important to validate what the child says and add only one or two extra details to the utterance in order to keep your model within the zone of proximal development. This means that it’s just slightly more complex than what the child produces, but still simple enough for them to understand and imitate.
Strategy 5: Read for vocabulary exposure
Rowe (2012) found that both quantity and quality of parents’ vocabulary usage with their children significantly impacted the size of their vocabularies a year later. This means that it’s important to both expose your child to a wide range of vocabulary words (a high quantity), and also to ensure that you choose rich vocabulary words that are slightly more complex than the words your child is using (high quality).
The best way to do this is through reading a wide range of books and exposing your children to a variety of situations and experiences. Check out your local library for bilingual books, purchase high-quality bilingual books, or find some for free online! Here are a few places to find books in Spanish and English:
Strategy 6: Recasting
Recasting takes a child’s simple utterance and introduces a different linguistic form by stating the child’s idea in a different way. This can be used to help your child expand their grammatical forms in their second language. You can take the child’s utterance and turn it into a question, use past tense or future tense, or add complexity to help them develop more complex language.
If the child says “Bebé quiere comer,” I might say “Bebé quiere comer? Qué quiere comer bebé?” to first turn his utterance into a question, and then turn it into a more complex “what” question.
And finally… Embrace code-switching!
Code-switching refers to “changing languages over phrases or sentences” and it isn’t random; research shows it’s grammatically and socioculturally constrained (ASHA). Code-switching can feel scary, but it shouldn’t be! Code-switching is a normal developmental process for bilingual children as their brains begin to separate the languages. It’s also a strategy that helps them achieve more complex language by using everything they have in their toolbox – whether or not it’s all in the same language. You can support the child that code-switches by restating their complete thought in both languages. So embrace it, go with it, recast if needed, but definitely don’t discourage it!
Best of luck, mama! ¡Sí se puede!
Haley is completing her graduate studies in speech language pathology and working toward becoming licensed as an SLP. If you have concerns about your child’s language development, you can reach out to an ASHA-certified SLP through their online directory.
You can also find a wealth of information about language development and strategies to promote language at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
Bilingual Service Delivery: Key Issues. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Bloom, L., & Lahey, M. (1978). Language development and language disorders. Macmillan Pub Co.
Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2000). How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life. London, England: Penguin.
The Hanen Centre. (n.d.). Early Helping Children Develop Language for Thinking and Learning Language and Literacy Development Articles. Retrieved from http://www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Helping-Children-Develop-Language-for-Thinking-and.aspx
Lahey, M. (1988). Language Disorders and Language Development. New York, NY: Pearson College Division.
Rowe, M. L. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-
Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development, 83(5), 1762-1774. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01805.x