Summer Family Time Can Help Build Heritage Language Skills

I have been thinking about our own family and our friends who are spending extended time with their grandchildren this month. Unlike the busy fall and winter seasons, summer visits with extended family members often provide unhurried time for the adults and children to just be together.

For instance, during the summer some families with young children may travel to the towns or cities where they grew up to stay with extended family members. For some families of young children, summer may be a time when parents ask family members (e.g., grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) to help with child care for both preschool and school-aged children. For young dual language learners (DLLs), these longer periods of time spent with extended family members provide many opportunities to have conversations in their heritage language.

In the summer, families may attend neighborhood block parties, go to the pool, or visit together at community festivals. Sharing these special events with extended family members provides opportunities to engage young DLLs in conversations and introduce new words in their heritage language. Long car rides or waiting in long lines for ice cream are natural times for grandparents to tell family stories to young children. Listening to family stories—told in their heritage language—is one way for young DLLs to learn about their family history. (Some families have recorded grandparents sharing specific family stories in their heritage language for children to listen to at home.) When grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins teach young children to play simple games and sing songs in their heritage language, they help the child develop a sense of belonging and pride in the family’s language and culture.

Cooking together, shopping at an outdoor market, and eating a picnic lunch at the park are activities with extended family members where young DLLs can enjoy learning new words in their heritage language. Questions such as “How many ears of corn should we buy for our dinner?” or “How long do you think it will take us to walk home from the park?” engage young DLLs in practicing new words that they may have just heard. Practicing new words in conversations with extended family members will help the young child build a strong foundation in the heritage language.

Young DLLs who spend summer days with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins will have opportunities to expand their knowledge about and ability to speak their family’s heritage language while enjoying the time to just be together.

Bernie Laumann

Dr. Bernadette M. Laumann is the coordinator of the Illinois Early Learning Project. She has been a child care teacher, an early childhood special education teacher, director of an inclusive early childhood program, researcher, and university teacher educator. Her research interests include mentoring and induction activities for beginning teachers and the use of technology in connecting evidence-based practice.