First Day Of School

Autumn is here, and that means it’s time to look at some of the issues facing parents of school-age bilingual children.

Our kids are in school, and every day we ask the usual question: “How was school today?”

Their unchanging reply: “Good.”

Keeping the Bilingual Focus

Like most parents raising their children bilingually, we always want them to talk more in the minority language.

Unless your children attend a bilingual or immersion school, their minority language probably isn’t used during the school day.

That means that the parents need to bring the language back into use as soon as the kids get home!

Open-Ended vs. Close-Ended Questions

Conversation with small children requires a lot of prompting.

Drawing your children out, especially in a minority language, requires you to understand the difference between open and closed questions:

  • Closed-ended questions only have a limited number of responses. Yes/no questions are closed questions, as are questions that present limited options, such as “Do you want to read your book or go outside and play?”
  • Open or open-ended questions do not have a limited number of replies. They require the child to imagine a new response of his or her own.

Most advice will tell you to focus on open-ended questions as a way to develop your child’s speech abilities. Making up a reply requires more language use than repeating something you’ve said to the child, so open questions are more interactive.

For bilingual children, however, it’s important to remember their limits and to use a mixture of questions. Simple, closed questions can be a good way of easing them into the use of their minority language.

How to Draw Your Child Out in a Second Language

Our system for asking our children about school is built around a mixture of closed and open-ended questions:

  • First, we ask short, positive questions or statements for the child to confirm: “Wow, that is a lot of drawings you did!”
  • Next, we offer a closed question that uses school-specific vocabulary: “Did you go to the special class with the art teacher or did you stay with Mrs. Hanes?
  • After that, we stay on the same topic, but ask an open-ended question: “What did you like most about the art class?”
  • When they reply using a mixture of languages or the majority language, I make sure to restate their reply entirely in their minority language: “Oh, the big picture of flowers on the wall was your favorite? I like flowers too.”
  • Finally, we finish off with a positive, exciting statement: “What a wonderful day you’ve had!”

This helps start our children with easy answers, then moves them into newer and more school-specific vocabulary, and finally leaves them feeling good about their conversation in their minority language!

You can’t always come up with an exciting question every day, but keep at it — and don’t be afraid to use toys or playtime to slip the questions in! Sometimes your child would rather tell Batman or Barbie what he or she did at school than talk to you about it. Encourage them to do it in their minority language, and then sit back and let them run the show.

Olena Centeno AvatarOlena Centeno a Ukrainian who lives in USA, a happy mom of three wonderful kids ages 2 to 9 and a wife to the great man. She speaks three languages herself and is raising her kids to be multilingual in English, Russian, Ukrainian and Spanish. She founded Bilingual Kids Rock where she helps families on their bilingual journey. She also enjoys photography and video making as a way to preserve precious moments of life.You can connect with her at

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