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.)
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 ?
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 ?
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.