Where do you even start? It feels huge and impossible. But here are some ideas to help you get going.
The idea that has helped me the most is to commit to doing one little thing every day — even just saying one word, writing it on your calendar and saying it to your kids.
1. Be systematic: Turn your day into Arapaho, French or Spanish bit by bit. We’re starting with meals, using the dictionary and texting soundfiles to friends on facebook messenger to get words for foods and phrases to use around the dinner table. Are you hungry? Pass me the bacon. Do you want more eggs? Ooh, you like ketchup huh? I cut pictures of foods my toddler likes out of the grocery store ads and tape them to the wall by the dinner table. I tape up phrases too — the challenge is to actually use them.
2. Encourage speaking over passive understanding: Make rewards depend on your child asking for something in the target language. Help me in Arapaho is cihniiteheibii, so Amelie has to say that for me to turn on her television show. When I tickle her, she has to say ciinto for me to stop. We set up the good-job hii3eti’ game specifically to reinforce Arapaho; she gets a nisiscoo’ (a sweet, like an M&M) for doing something good, either using the potty since we’re toilet training, cleaning up her toys or saying words in Arapaho.
3. When you put kids to bed, stay in the room in the dark and speak the language you’re teaching. If you pray, learn a simple prayer to repeat, but you can also just say anything in the language that comes to your mind. Because it’s dark and you aren’t doing anything, you can’t possibly teach anything wrong, but you’re communicating how much you value the language and you’re laying foundational acoustic brickwork for phrases that will be given meaning when you use them during the day. This also helps you create the language, move it from the knowing-about part of your brain to the functional-tool part of your brain, and they are very different.
4. Don’t fear screwing up when you’re alone with your kid/s; use as much of the language as you can, whether or not they’re listening or looking, whether or not you think you’re right. Who cares if you mess up? It has no consequences. If you teach something wrong you can correct it later; children have a very easy time changing how they pronounce words, or what they think words mean. You do them the favor by trying.
5. Use permanent markers to write directly on toys; toddlers adore peeling stickers off and labels stay on a toy until you bring attention to it. Play with toys that are miniatures of real life as often as you can because then you can learn the words for things you really use, and so can your child.
6. The best game I’ve found is Silence. Turn your phone off, get on your hands and knees and engage with your, toddler looking at what they’re looking at, but don’t say anything – unless you know how to say it in the language you’re teaching. Set the timer and try it for 15 minutes; it’s important to play what the baby wants to play, because vocabulary has been shown to stick in their minds much better if you’re telling them about what they like. It’s hard not to give commands or behavioral feedback even for just 15 minutes but your child will adore this game. Right afterwards write down a phrase you wanted to say but couldn’t, and – if you’re serious – get the translation, write it on a piece of paper and tape it in the room where you play, high enough that the toddler can’t rip it down. Pay close attention to what your child says because those are the words they care about and are most likely to learn; write one of those down, translate it, and tape it up. Tape stuff up where you see it often – above the kitchen sink or on the wall where you look if you’re sitting on the toilet.
7. Second-best is horsy, woxhoox. Lie on the ground and let your child crawl onto your back (yoga in my house often becomes horsy). Have your child give you commands; don’t move until they tell you to in the target language, and don’t stop moving until they tell you to. Bumping your head into the closet door is a massive hit for a toddler, and when they’re happy and engaged, they remember words more. You can also have them “drive” you while they’re on your shoulders, which allows far more advanced commands. Instead of just go straight, stop, turn left, let me get down – those are horsy commands – they can tell you to pick up a cup, turn on the water, take a drink, jump, open the door, twirl around, anything. Any command you want them to understand when you tell them, have them command you. Putting a child in a position of power is great for their sense of self, and anything that makes them feel like they make a difference in the world ramps up the likelihood that they’ll remember the situation, remember what they learned.
8. Remember you’re learning too, and the richer your environment is with the language, the higher-quality language you will be passing on. Read in the language right before you go to sleep, or listen to it on CD or a movie as you’re lying in bed; the sounds will revolve in your brain all night and it’ll stick faster. Listen to tapes in the language instead of music when you’re playing with your kids or doing dishes. Expose yourself to the sounds of it as much as you can; make it what you do when you’re not doing anything.
9. Create social support to remind you to keep trying. Facebook messenger is an app for mobile phones that is just like texting but it’s really easy to send a sound file, just tap the paperclip next to where you put the words in then tap record voice. This lets you have other teachers with you, so you can use good teaching opportunities even if you aren’t very prepared to do it. Plus it lets you know that you have other adults who support your effort – because raising any child is hard, and investing extra effort for linguistic benefit is a real challenge, a real act of love. It can be hard to stay motivated, so you should guard against that.
10. Most important: be willing to make mistakes, and don’t give up. Do some little thing every day; commit and stick to one little thing. Every word is progress; every action is a triumph; every effort is a gift to your child.