Maybe it's because I miss the classroom sometimes, or maybe it's because I'm still figuring out how to interact with a toddler, but at times when I'm with Carl I revert to being Sarah the Teacher, rather than Sarah the Tatie. I've started deliberately trying to help him acquire certain words in French, rather than just saying what comes naturally in the context, and I tend to use a lot of the same approaches that I would with my former college students in beginning French classes!
With those classes, I referred rarely to the textbook or the written word at first. Instead, I brought in pictures and props and used actions to illustrate the words, repeating them over and over and over, especially via questions (e.g. "Is this X or Y? Do you like X? Do you like Y? Can you see X at school? Can you see Y at school? Can you see X at the mall? Can you see Y at the mall? Is X big or small? Is X happy or sad? Etc.). The students didn't have to make entire sentences--but they did have to understand all the words in the sentence to respond correctly.
And that's what I find myself doing with my nephew now. I pick out a couple of contrasting words to try to "teach" him each time, for example "vite" (quickly) and "lentement" (slowly). For those two, we played with trains, cars, and stuffed animals, pushing them at different speeds. I held Carl in my arms and ran around the room saying "vite," and "Tatie court vite," and then walked in slow motion, saying "lentement" and "Tatie marche lentement." Then we jumped up and down quickly and slowly. (Carl's always loved bouncing.) If we heard a car drive by the house, I pointed out whether it was going "vite" or "lentement." After that, I put Carl on the floor and gave him directions--walk fast, walk slowly, push the car fast, push the car slowly. Finally, I pushed a toy either fast or slowly, asking him if it was moving "vite" or "lentement." And he was usually right! Now I'm trying to keep track of which words I've made a conscious effort to teach him so that I can remember to recycle them later in other situations, like commenting "Carl mange vite!" when he eagerly shoves strawberries into his mouth at snacktime, and I want to find stories that use these key words so he can hear them in a larger context and see the illustrations.
All of this comes straight out of the foreign language methodology training I received in grad school. Give the learners lots and lots of exposure to the new words (different studies cite different numbers, all over 30-some repetitions, some as many as 75+) in several contexts. Don't translate the new words into English--illustrate them clearly in several different ways. Engage the learners--make them do more than sit at their desks and repeat the words after the teacher (thus appealing to many different learning styles or multiple intelligences). Move from passive knowledge (being able to recognize the words) to active knowledge (being able to produce the words). Have the students practice the new vocabulary at home in different ways and then bring the words back during later lessons in different contexts combined with other new words.
And while this approach seems to work with my nephew, I don't know if it's too didactic for a 19-month-old! On the one hand, it seems reminiscent of some Sesame Street episodes that introduce new words and ideas; on the other hand, if I am planning ahead what I'm going to say, I'm no longer exposing him to 100% natural, communicative French. But then I remind myself that I only take care of him one afternoon a week--and it almost always involves a nap--which doesn't make for a lot of immersion in French over the course of his waking life. So shouldn't I be trying to squeeze as much focused language use into our time together?
I'd love to hear from other parents--both monolingual and bilingual--about whether or not they set out to help their toddlers acquire certain words, and how it seems to work best, and if it feels comfortable or teacherly. Please let me know by clicking on "comments" and sharing your experiences!