Saturday, March 18, 2017

My child wants to learn Norwegian, but I don't speak it! What can I do?

Learning a language is easiest when you are a child.  The brain is more elastic, there aren't as many preconceived stereotypes about different cultures or words, and children are eager to learn.  But what if your child wants to learn a language that you yourself don't speak?  How do you teach them or find someone to teach them?

I was fortunate to grow up bilingual Norwegian-English, even though it was my grandparents' grandparents who were the immigrants to America.  My grandma grew up around Sioux Falls, SD, in a community that spoke both languages.  However, the language skipped half a generation, and it was only in college and after that my dad discovered he could quickly pick it back up, despite not being taught it officially as a child.  He and my mom became fully trilingual (German being the other language) and decided to bring me up bilingually.

Living in America, it's hard to keep up a minority language background.  The majority language, English, often takes over.  Signs are written in English, most books readily available are in English, schools are taught in English (although there are many language immersion programs as well), and many conversations are in English.  How, then, do you teach a child another language, when he or she is surrounded by all of this?  You become the one responsible for surrounding them with the other language in addition to it.

In two-parent households where at least one parent speaks the other language, a child hears the minority language before he or she is even born and picks it up along with the majority language, reaching many language milestones at or about the same time in both languages.  The child is exposed to the minority language through play, songs, stories, conversation, listening, body language, media (TV, radio, and music), and other interactions.  This day-to-day involvement surrounds the child not only with the majority language but with the minority one as well.  As the child gets older and starts going to school, he or she will be surrounded by other influences outside of a parent's control, in various language and cultural settings.

How, then, can a parent teach a child another language if the parent doesn't speak the language?  Language isn't learned in only one way.  Language (and culture, for that matter) are learned through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and experiencing.  Each of these is important in the development of the language learner, so it is vital to nurture them all.

Learning through reading (print):

Most often, we think of print resources as a way to learn spelling and phonics.  While that is absolutely correct, there is more to it than that.  Print resources teach how words are made, how sentences are put together, the "correct" flow of the language, and what a culture values.  By reading a book, even silently, the reader learns to internalize the pattern of the language.  The pictures teach one-to-one correspondence, foster connections between the topic and the reader, and give clues as to the meaning of unfamiliar words.  Reading aloud combines all this learning with hearing the language spoken and practice putting the sounds together, whether the learner is the one being read to or reading aloud to him- or herself.

Gather reading material in many forms for the child to experience.  Think outside "normal" books to comic books, websites, games, and even garbage.  Yes, garbage!  Wrappers, containers, jars, cereal boxes, and more have educational value as well.  Remember reading the back of your cereal box as a child?  Remember asking about unfamiliar words (ingredients, mostly) and concepts?  Your child can do the same thing with wrappers brought home from trips to the other country or mailed to them by relatives.  Have a distant cousin in the other country send a box full of unfolded, flattened boxes from various products (food, personal care, toys).  Include other containers if possible, such as jars with labels that can be nested inside one another to save packing space.  Use newspapers or magazines as "stuffing" in the shipment, because this can count as another print source.  The package should be addressed to the child to increase interest.

When the package comes, make sure to allow plenty of time and "reconstruction" space, along with ample supplies to reconstruct the containers.  Packing tape is very handy for making up cardboard containers, but make sure that whatever you use is clear so the print shows.  As you reconstruct the materials with your child, talk about what the child sees on each package:  pictures, print, words, drawings, charts, etc.  It's ok if you don't know what the words are.  You can learn along with your child!  As he or she sees you using strategies to learn, he or she will become a more confident learner.

Use the new materials with your child during play and "down" time, just the same as other reading material.  You can sit down with a picture book and try to guess what the words mean, telling the story using the pictures.  Study the alphabet of the other language, listen to letters being pronounced, and try to repeat them.  Use these skills to decipher words that you come across, even if you don't know what they mean yet.  If you mispronounce words, you can correct yourself later on when you learn the correct pronunciation.  Find YouTube videos of people reading the materials in the language, then read along with the video.  Ask others who know the language to read to your child, whether in person, via phone or Skype, or via recording themselves and sending the recording to your child.  Follow along with the words being read.

Learning through writing:

This is often the easiest way initially to teach a child if you don't know the language.  Look online for resources from the other country, such as educational websites, that have printable materials.  Don't forget "mirror" sites in other languages, like  If you aren't sure if a site is good, run it through a web translator like Free Translation or Google Translate.  The translation software will not give you a completely-accurate teaching tool, but it will help you evaluate the overall quality of the site.  Look for trace-and-color resources.  One of my favorite sites is Teachers Pay Teachers, which has quality educational material from teachers around the world.  Quite a few Norwegian teachers sell worksheets, games, reading material, and cultural material on there, including myself.  Remember, when looking for resources always look under Norwegian, norsk, and either bokmÃ¥l or nynorsk (depending on which you want your child to learn).

Many countries have resources available through grammar sites as well.  One of my favorites for Norwegian is Undervisningsmetoder, which has different worksheets and flashcards for all levels, as well as rhymes and links to other great sites.

I will continue this discussion with another blog post covering learning through speaking, listening, and experiencing.