Friday, January 27, 2012


Those of us who are doing our best to raise our kids with something other than the community language know that we have to seize every possible moment to barrage them with lots and lots of input in the target language.  (This is especially challenging for those parents who work full-time and have a very limited number of hours most days to share their language with their children.)

When we're at home, we can take advantage of games, books, toys, videos, and the simple fact that we're engaging in face-to-face interactions with their accompanying gestures, expressions, and props--we have a lot of tools to provide contextualized prompts for conversation and activities in the target language.

But what about those endless hours in the car, chauffeuring from one playgroup to another lesson, running errand upon errand?  The parent is driving, facing forward, no eye contact, hands occupied--not ideal conditions for practicing another language with small (or bigger) children.

So here's my challenge to us: let's take advantage of the fact that the kids are a trapped audience to immerse them in our language of choice! Let's brainstorm as many as possible ways to engage our kids in the target language when we're driving them here and there and everywhere!  Here, I'll start:

Music (duh): Listen to songs in the target language--children's music, yes, but also pop music, rap music, folk songs, music from all the countries where the language is spoken.  Sing songs to (or with) your children.  (Griffin, approaching age four, has learned to sing in a round, which sounds so lovely to my ears.)  And don't forget the nursery rhymes!

I still remember the trip Griffin and I took to visit with a friend in another city, a 45-minute drive, when he was about six months old.  I turned off the tape player (yeah, my twelve-year-old Toyota, Earl Grey, is so basic that he doesn't have a CD player!) to see if I could sing French children's songs the whole way there.  To my surprise, we made it to my friend's house without my repeating a single one!

(This video is just a placeholder--he's singing in English.  I'll try to film him singing in French in the car soon.)

Rhyme time: You say a word in the target language; your kids reply with words that rhyme.  Then let them pick the words to start with.

Counting: Count to 100 together, then count solo and pause for the kids to fill in the next number, then alternating (you count the odd numbers, your kids the evens), then by tens, fives, twos, then backwards (whatever the children are capable of); count objects that you pass (stop signs, cows, blue cars).

Twenty Questions: Play this vocabulary-rich game that involves guessing what object someone is thinking of, where the guessers can only ask yes/no questions.  A child who can't form complete sentences (much less questions) can still show his understanding of your questions by answering them while you guess!  (Unless your interlocutor is like three-year-old Griffin, whose answers tend to lead to things like "something green that's made of metal and bigger than the universe").

I Spy: Another fun and easy game that involves sighting an object (inside or outside the car) and giving clues so that the others can guess the object.

I Spy (on signs or license plates): Challenge your children to find the numbers 0-9 in order on signs that you pass, or specific two-digit numbers, or the digits in your telephone number, etc.  Ditto for the letters of the alphabet in the target language.

Chercher et trouver dans un livre (seek and find in a book): Give your child a book, preferably a large-ish imagier or other book with lots of labeled images (a picture dictionary, a book about animals, or something like that).  (In fact, keep it in the car so that it's always there and you don't have to remember to bring one with you when you're leaving the house in a hurry, which is pretty much the only way I do it.)  Tell your child to open to a random page and name one of the images; then, based on  that first image, ask him to find something related on a different page.  For example:

Griffin: Il y a une robe.
Maman: De quelle couleur est la robe ?
Griffin: Rouge.
Maman: Okay, tourne la page et trouve quelque chose d'autre qui est rouge.
Griffin: Coccinelle !
Maman: Est-ce qu'elle est grande ou petite ?
Griffin: Petite.
Maman: D'accord, maintenant trouve quelque chose qui est aussi petite que la coccinelle….

I draw upon any category that occurs to me, including things that he or I or his papa likes or dislikes, something found in or outside our house, something from far away, colors, shapes, sizes, opposites, material they're made of, and lots more.

This game seems to work especially well with animal books, because then you can make the categories specific to the animals--how they move, where they live, size, colors, sounds, features, foodwild/tame--which means that you're all using the target language to share information, not just to label objects.

I like "Cherche et trouve dans le livre" because it's so rich in contextualized language and because two children of different ages can play, passing the book back and forth.  (A child who doesn't know how to read can still play this game with a much older kid.)

Un truc dans un machin: "A thingy in a whats-it" is what I call this activity, where I pretend to misunderstand something Griffin said, repeating it back to him as inaccurately as possible (and making it as silly as I can).  For example,

Griffin: Regarde, Maman!  Il y a un chien dans la camionnette!  (Look, Mommy, there's a dog in that pickup truck!)
Maman: Quoi?  Il y a un dinosaure dans ta poche?  (What?  There's a dinosaur in your pocket?)
Griffin (giggling): Non, il y a un chien dans la camionnette!
Maman: Quoi?  Il y a un extra-terrestre dans l'arbre?  (What?  There's an alien in the tree?)
And so on; Griffin usually joins in and makes up other strange combinations.  We can do this for a good ten or fifteen minutes before one of us (okay, moi) tires of it.

And a related activity: sing a familiar song but insert other silly words here and there.  For instance, "Au feu, les pompiers/Voila la maison qui brule/Au feu, les pompiers/Voila la maison brulee/C'est pas moi qui l'ai brulee/C'est la coccinelle/C'est pas moi qui l'ai brulee/C'est l'arraignee" (instead of "la cuisiniere" and "le cuisinier").

Storytelling, of course!  I find that listening to audio books in French in the car is too challenging for Griffin at this point, unless it's a story he's already very familiar with because I've read it to him multiple times and he's seen pictures illustrating it.  (We have a small handful of stories-on-tape like Boucle d'or et les trois ours.)  Rather, I'll pick a story he knows much less well and tell it to him, simply at first, then   gradually adding details and length.  Changing my voice for each character helps him follow along (Occasionally I change it up to see how quickly he notices the differences, a la "Boucle d'or et les trois girafes.")

Now it's your turn....what do you do to keep your kids in the target language during car rides?

This post is part of the January 2012 Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism, hosted by Coco at Multilingual Mama.


  1. Some great ideas for language learnng games to while away the time when travelling by car!My daughter is still too young to do most of these games but I´ll be keeping them in mind for when she´s older!

  2. There are lots of good ideas there that I'll build in gradually - as I learn enough Gaelic to share with my children. It's good to keep things in mind though. Thanks!

  3. We've only listened to music but these are great ideas, thanks!!

  4. Yes, yes, yes!!!

    We don't spend much time in the car lately (so glad we no longer have an hour commute each way) but we do sing a lot. And I Spy. But the rest I will have to put in my magic purse. Those are great ideas, thanks!!

  5. I love the idea of "Un truc dans un machin"... how much fun.

    I came across the idea of an eyespy bag recently. It sounds like a great way to encourage vocab building... the child looks for objects and then can describe them to you...Poppette is still too young to use that sort of thing but I imagine it would be perfect for Griffin. You can buy them on Amazon or you can make them yourself - there are tons of blogs out there with ideas for making your own.. just pop Eyespy Bag into Google.

    1. Great idea! Especially for long trips!!

    2. I had never heard of this activity before, but I'm sold! If you made your own bag, you could target specific vocabulary items (like using dollhouse furniture and accessories to practice talking about objects in the home--although that would require a pretty big bag). I, however, don't own a sewing machine (and would not know how to use one even if I did have one). But it looks like there are anhuge variety of handmade eyespy bags on too!

  6. Mine (21 months old) identifies numbers and letters in the cars in front of us or in trafic signs in the target language (English) then we go through routines like saying Hi! to a lion painted in a wall on our way to nursery, or I sing a song and then stop suddenly and then he finishes the line... The thing is to spend as much time as possible interacting with him.

    1. Of course! Using the license plates, road signs, store signs, billboards, and so forth is a great idea! We could ask the kids to identify the letters and numbers, then name words that begin with the sound; count up to a number they see and then back down, etc.

      I also really like the idea of pausing in a familiar song or rhyme to let the child chime in.

      Thanks for sharing your ideas, Dani--it's good to hear from you again!

  7. Oh wow! You have some of the best ideas around!! Thanks for the inspiration!
    So far, we've just listened to German music in the car. But I was thinking of starting some simple audio books (I was just talking about my find of a CD of Eric Carle stories in German over on my blog....) I'm not sure he's ready for some of the more advanced ideas, but I'll hold on to them for the future!
    For now, I'd like to just point out the things we see out the window. Actually, he's better at this than I am. From the back seat, I suddenly hear him say "helle Sonne" (bright sun) or "Auto" (car) or "Bagger" (excavator) other basic things he knows. So much fun!
    If I think of things you haven't already mentioned, I'll be sure to stop back to this post!

  8. I spy Bingo boards! Make a bingo board with pictures of things you find on the road and write the word in the square, too. Compete with another person in the car or challenge them to fill up the board.

    1. Oh, I remember playing that during three-day car trips as a child! (We'd also try to spot license plates from all 50 states, but doing that wouldn't help Griffin learn new words in French, I guess.) Using a board with both words and pictures would help reinforce meaning. I wonder where we could find something like that already created, like a pdf file to print from a website--surely someone has done them already?!

      Thanks for the idea (and the memories!), Panda Mom.

    2. Panda Mom has a blank template and an example in Chinese here:

  9. Just thought you might like to see this website. I just discovered it and haven't gone through it myself.

    Maybe you already know about this or you'd be interested in learning more about it.

  10. Thank you for sharing! It looks promising, especially the access to videos of a native speaker pronouncing the words clearly, and the program is very reasonably priced. It looks like they're planning to add more resources, too. I'm adding the site to my blogroll.

    1. In fact, I went ahead and subscribed to the program. It's very well organized and would be good for parents who want to learn French along with their kids.

  11. Wow, Sarah, these are all such terrific ideas! I'd love to try them with my two sons who are learning Turkish. We live in the U.S. so, as you can imagine, there aren't that many opportunities to get real language practice. But this summer we'll be spending three months in Turkey and I've been looking for fun ways to "sneak" in some language practice. So I'm so glad I found your post via MultilingualMama's blog circle.

    1. Welcome, Justine! Turkish, wow...I almost took an English composition teaching job at Bilkent University in different my life would have been! I still have a thick folder of articles about Turkey because I would love to travel there some day.

      It must be a real challenge to find materials, playgroups, and so forth in Turkish here in the US. Could I perhaps talk you into letting me interview your family to share your ideas and experiences? You can see some examples of what I've posted here:

      If you--or anyone else!--are interested in answering my questions, please email me at babybilingual (at) gmail (d0t) com.

  12. Another idea: My husband and I are now trying to learn enough baby sign language to be able to narrate what Gwyneth is doing, ask her questions, and so forth. Griffin is picking up the signs very quickly, too. We've been practicing them in the car (and I think he remembers more of them than I do!).

    1. Aaaaand one more idea: categories. Simply brainstorming as many of a certain type of thing--birds, trees, furniture, desserts--as possible can be fun! The fact that it reinforces vocabulary more complex than just "un oiseau" or "un arbre" is just a bonus.

  13. I absolutely love the "un truc dans le machin" - this is a staple of our car rides-- "quoi? il y a un dinosaur dans l'arbre?" he cracks up every time we play this. Thank you for the tip and all your wonderful posts!

    We don't spend too much time in the car, but when we do, it is sometimes hard to keep the french up. Usually I just start with "Bonjour monde, bonjour camion poubelle, bonjour femme dans la vest jaune...." A woman I ran into at the toy store the other day recommended audio books. I recently bought some by Berlitz which Zach (my 4 year old) seems to like - but I would like to find more....will check your previous posts for recommendations!

    1. Bonjour Jennifer! Thank you for sharing your stories. I look forward to following your blog, especially since Zach and Griffin are the same age.

      We say hi to objects from the car, too; the other day Griffin cracked me up as we took turns greeting the buildings, the traffic signs, and so forth; at one point I said, "Bonjour, trottoir!" and he glared at me and replied "Mais les trottoirs ne parlent pas!" (As if the trees and stop signs do.)

      Audio books--great idea, especially if the child can follow along with the picture book while he listens! I haven't made any specific recommendations on this blog, but we do have a few hand-me-downs, including familiar Disney stories.

      I'll try to post about those soon!

  14. Recently came across a few other similarly-themed posts:

    --activities to do with your child in a stroller:

    --extensive collection of activities for plane travel:

    Most of these would be easy to adapt for reinforcing your child's second language!

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