How Can I Teach My Child To Speak My Native Language?

"Introduce the native language from birth — newborn babies are able to distinguish between different sounds."

Since becoming a mum, I’ve only ever spoken to my daughter in Urdu. In fact, I’ve convinced my brain that she was born understanding just Urdu, because that’s the only way I’m able to keep it up.

For a bit of context, I’m a second generation British Pakistan. I grew up in a household speaking my mother tongue as my mum had always believed I would learn English at school anyway — she was right, I did.

I’ve always been extremely grateful for knowing two languages and I often come across people my age who regret not being taught their native language, a regret I don’t want my daughter to feel.

Language is such a huge part of culture and for me, without knowing Urdu, I don’t think I would feel as connected to my Pakistani side as I do. The conversations I have with fellow Pakistanis and the ability to communicate to family back home is what helps me to embrace something that is a huge part of my DNA.

Of course when you have kids the language dilutes for the next generation, especially as my daughter is a third generation British Pakistani and my husband and I are used to speaking to each other in English. But regardless, we have done our best to make sure we speak to our child in Urdu.

Parents like myself are always looking for ways to implement their native tongue, so I spoke to linguistic experts to understand what we can do to teach our children their native tongue.

The one person one language technique

Linguistic expert and Babbel Live curriculum manager at language learning platform Babbel, Héctor Hernández says: “Teaching a baby or child to speak a parent’s native language involves providing an environment with lots of opportunities for communication and language exposure. It is best to start early, and introduce the native language from birth, as newborn babies are able to distinguish between different sounds.”

Hector’s top tips:

  • Engaging in meaningful interactions with them from a young age. Responding to their coos and babbling as a baby, and later attempts at communication, helps develop language skills.
  • As they get older, you can create an environment conducive to language learning at home by labelling objects in the house (‘fridge’, ‘television’) and narrating daily routines in the native language (‘I can see you’re brushing your teeth. Good job!’).
  • Repetition is also very useful as it helps reinforce familiarity with language patterns, so it is helpful to repeat words and phrases often.
  • Speaking clearly and using proper words — children love copying what they hear, so it helps to model good language habits.
  • Reading books, singing, watching TV programmes can help kids pick up language skills.
  • Organising playdates or activities with other native speakers.

Hector also encourages the use of the ‘one person one language technique’ where each parent sticks to speaking just one language. It would mean, for example, I would only speak in Urdu to my child and my husband would speak in English. This ensures regular exposure to the minority language.

He says: “Patience and persistence are the most important things to remember when raising your child to be bilingual. As all those learning a second language will know, it takes time and effort, so do not expect to see results straight away. Praise and encourage your child’s efforts, as positive reinforcement is a great motivator and keep providing opportunities for language exposure and practice, even if progress seems slow.”

Cindy Blanes, Early Childhood and Lower School Principal at ACS International School Egham who hosts a weekly after-school home language club where children have the opportunity to explore traditions in their mother tongue says books are important in language learning.

“In school, our library holds a collection of books that represent each of the languages in our school community. Being able to take out a book in their home language places great value on a child’s native language and encourages them to engage with it.

“I would therefore encourage your child to take advantage of their school library, or you might even want to consider donating a book to the school in your own language for children to enjoy. You could also share books from your own country with your children at home, taking time to read through the text together in your mother tongue.”

She added: “Young children have an innate sense of curiosity, and so why not encourage your child to explore a topic of interest from their own country to further support their language learning? For example, at ACS Egham, children are given the opportunity to learn about a landmark of their choice which gives them the chance to connect with the culture of their home country.”