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Promote your Child’s Multilingualism with Family Video Calls

10 tips to make family video calls that promote multilingualism a success for your child!

How do you raise a multilingual child when you live abroad? When you live in another country, far away from your family and friends, it becomes more challenging to raise your child with all your family languages.

However, we’re very lucky to live in a time where technology allows us to video call with our loved ones. Free access to high quality video calls means that we can offer our children exposure to our home language and promote family multilingualism more easily than ever before.

What are we talking about when it comes to using video calls to help your child learn additional languages? This is not about your family members ‘teaching’ your child their language. It’s about creating and extending opportunities for natural use of the language and for creating a genuine need for your child to use it.

Which app to use:

WhatsApp is free and widely used. The downside is that it’s mostly used on a smart phone so the screen size can be limiting.

The Zoom conferencing app takes a bit more effort to set up and log in to, but the advantage of using a tablet or computer means you have a big screen to better see each other and show toys and books more clearly. With the free version of the app you can talk for 40 minutes without having to pay.

Comment below and tell us what app you prefer for making video calls!

Tips for success:

  • Start early when your child is still a baby because babies are uniquely primed to make the most of language exposure. It’s true that screen time is not encouraged for babies, but when used in an intentional way there can be benefits for your family. You build the habit of calling your family which allows your baby to create and strengthen bonds with them from the very beginning. Start as you mean to go on and it’ll be easier to raise your multilingual child.
  • To help make it a habit, if possible meet at the same time every week.
  • While your child is an infant, you might want to keep hold of your phone and keep the call short to avoid them grabbing for the phone or getting overstimulated.
  • Some family members might find these calls strange and unnatural and just ask how the child is and be happy to finish the call. This might be the case for grandparents who are not accustomed to video calling with children. This can be frustrating when you want them to bond, but if it’s not happening naturally, don’t force it. Try and find another family member who is ready to have fun on video calls.
  • For older children, you might want to encourage them to take turns on the call. This avoids too much excitment leading to out of control silliness and allows each child to build their own relationship with their family members abroad.
Multilingual children talk to family on a video call outside
Try taking your calls outside!

I’ve put together a list of ideas for activities to keep your child (and family!) engaged and having fun on a video call. Of course, the idea is to expose your baby to your home language so you can promote multilingualism. Make sure your family member knows this so they don’t default to English or another common language. All the ideas below work with older children, but if you have a baby or toddler, the first ones will work best for you now.

10 activities to try:

  • Have a snack together – eat the same thing, for example a banana, and talk about it. What colour is it? What’s the shape like? What do you have to do to get to the fruit? Exaggerate and play if appropriate. Make yum yum eating noises or make the food dance and fly! If you’ve got a baby, use baby signs for ‘eat’, for the item of food and sign ‘all done’ when you’re finished.
  • Show each other things – What toy is your baby playing with now? Does your child have a new toy to show off? Your child can show it and you can all describe it. Hide it from the person you’re calling. They ask ‘Where’s it gone?’ and you make it reappear ‘Here it is!’ Babies love to repeat this over and over again. Your family member can show something interesting that they have – literally anything could be interesting for a child – something in their handbag, an item on the table or from the kitchen… Make it disappear and your child has to ask for it back. Talk about it, what’s it for, is it big or small, what colour is it etc. If your child is not finding it interesting, try another item that might catch their attention better.
  • Listen to music or sing together – Nursery rhymes are wonderful for little ones. Music opens their ear to your language. Older children might be interested in cultural songs that you can learn and sing together.
  • Make puppets or toys talk – Your family member can have a ‘special visitor’ with a big personality join the call. My mother has a horse puppet that is very naughty. She makes it say and do naughty things to the other soft toys and my children find it hilarious. They tell it off, and give it instructions for how to behave well. I find this funny too, because they often use phrases that I’ve said to them when disciplining the toy or they do it in ‘mummy’s voice’.
  • Show photos or videos – If your family member has another device handy, they can use it to show clips of videos or photos to your child. They can talk about what they’re showing and share what they like about it.
  • Guessing game – Do I have a lamp in my room? Yes or no? If your child gets it right they offer a guessing question to your family member. If they get it wrong they do a previously agreed upon penalty, like turning around 3 times or doing some other silly thing.
  • Collaborative story-telling – Your child creates a story together with the family member they’re talking to on the call. Someone starts with the first sentence, something like: “Once upon a time there was a little girl called…” Then the other person takes up the story and adds a new sentence with new details or actions. It’s great fun.
  • Becoming my twin – My children LOVE pretending to be another version of themselves – they call it their twin. They get to say and do strange and outrageous things and to ‘shock’ and tease the person they’re talking to. Their twin is a high contrast of the child’s usual personality, sometimes acting haughty, naughty and a bit unpleasant but in a playful way. Then my kids come back as their lovely normal selves and smooth everything out. In our family it works perfectly with their grandfather who reciprocates with very funny reactions.
  • Emoji game – This works best on Zoom. The child puts an emoji in the chat and then the person they’re talking to has to find the same emoji and put it in the chat too. There are so many of them that it encourages the giving and understanding of instructions – “It’s in the section with animals, next to the frog. No, keep going down…”
  • Read to each other – Your family member can read story books and show the pictures on the screen. When your child is learning to read they can read their books to your family. If this is challenging because your child doesn’t want to stop the story or doesn’t want to listen to a story at all, you can try the 3 page rule – “you read 3 pages and then we’re done” – 3 pages are much better than nothing! You can use picture books or even multilingual books (tap here for more about multilingual books).
What parents in our community do on video calls with family abroad

What activity do you think you’ll try first with your little one and your family who live far away? Comment below and share your experiences.

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