The language game: boost your bilingual child's vocabulary

3 Jun 2012

Parents of bilingual children are always on the lookout for ways to boost their children's vocabulary. Here is my one favourite tip. It is a little game we play. It works really well from about 1 year old until 4 or 5 years old. Perfect for reluctant toddlers. We do it again and again.

Boost your bilingual child's vocabulary with one single tip

In our household, we play this little language 'game' constantly at the minute. People might think this is crazy or that we are trying to turn our children into geniuses (as some recent visitors joked), but it is fun and our kids now do it automatically too. 

We always do try and make our children aware that Papa and Maman are speaking two different languages (and other people might speak other languages too). But of course saying Papa speaks Portuguese and her little neighbour speaks French means nothing to a two-year old.
So this is how we do it:

LJ is learning to count and loves counting things at the minute. Often, her counting is something like:
seis, dois, três, vier, fünf, três!
deux, trois, quatre, cinco!
Whenever we hear something of the sort, we go: Papa says: um, dois, três, etc... and Maman says: un, deux, trois, etc... Usually, she goes along and plays the game and even says the words before we do.

Today, while we were walking she was talking about having eaten 3 raspberries. She then said:
Papa dit cinco.
Ok, three is not cinco in Portuguese but she is aware that Papa and Maman say it differently (at 2 and 5 months). I corrected and reinforced that Papa says três and I say trois.

We also do this for other words and sometimes she brings it up herself without prompting. It might seem a little cumbersome and tiresome but we never force it, just add it here and there in passing.

Maman says: qu'est-ce que tu as mangé? (what did you eat?)
E: Des pommes de terre et Fisch (potatoes and 'fish' in German)
Maman: Ah oui du poisson. Barbara dit Fisch. Maman dit du poisson. (Yes, fish. B says fish (in German) but Maman says fish (in French))

We are not keen on pretending we do not understand what our children say. What is the point? We are multilingual, just like them. They are not dumb. They know full well we understand. So instead we play this little game. We reinforce that what they said is correct but we add the language-appropriate option too.

Boost your bilingual child's vocabulary with one single tip

Language awareness is something that comes around 3 years old, but understanding that there are more than one label for things or concepts is something young bilinguals excel at, so we might as well encourage it.

How do you encourage your young child to be aware that he is speaking more than one language? Do you ever explain explicitly to your child that mummy and daddy speak different languages? What little games do you play? I'd love to hear others' experiences.


  1. We play a game where we say words from German, English, French and Russian. The kids have to guess which language the word comes from. For English and German, we choose words they probably don't know - then it is about pronounciation, morphology, intonation... for example - Gesellschaft (the kids identify it as German first because of the ending with is common in denoting nouns such as Freundschaft, Mannschaft)...

  2. Love to read the progress of your little one in her four languages.
    When our older two were younger, we used to say "the way maman or papa speaks". Now they are a bit older (4 and 7) we use the right words, ie arbia, francais, allemand/deutsch, anglais/english.

  3. Rachael

    That sounds like fun.... I will keep that in mind for later!

  4. We do this too since quite some time - now with 2,5 my sons even makes jokes and deliberately says wrongly the language for mum and dad (mixes dad and mom) and than he laughes. Children develop so fast, now with 2,5 he totally understands the concept of language...
    In the car we developed a game that dad says a word in english, me on my language and our son should use the common language (strongest one) - it's a lot of fun (even if concentration of a 2,5 year old is not too long)...

  5. This is too cute. Thanks for sharing.


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