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How Can You Teach Your Kid a Language You Barely Speak?

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When I was 3 years old, I was tri-lingual. I spoke Ewe (pronounced 'Eh-veh'), Twi (pronounced 'ch-wEE') and English. In fact, according to my parents, I'd mix all of the languages up. They thought it was funny, cute and genius. And they were proud of that fact.

But being immigrants to a country that was hostile to their language and culture, my parents encouraged me to learn and speak in English instead. They even spoke to me in English. They saw how kids who didn't speak English particularly well were often held back a class or two in school, and they didn't want that to happen to me.

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As they hoped, I became excellent at speaking the language, so much so that it became my favorite subject. I enjoyed analyzing it, learning the different words I could use to describe the same thing.

Yet, as my English improved, my knowledge of my native tongues faded away. They became distant and intimidating, other-worldly.

Conversations with family members whose English was as good as my Twi or Ewe became stunted. While it didn't hinder our ability to communicate how much we cared for each other, we couldn't talk about the seemingly mundane things, the same things that became special when you didn't see each other all the time. This became critical because flights to Ghana were expensive, so I couldn't go back every year to reconnect with my family or language.

Everyone there could speak English, but they'd speak to me in Twi and expected me respond in kind. ... I was embarrassed, ashamed, even sad.

As a young adult, I finally made my way back to Ghana. When our plane landed in Kotoka airport, the warmth of the air and the strength of the smells immediately welcomed me home. Everything tasted amazing. The smells of the oranges reminded me of the childhood days I spent at my Grandfather's house in Takoradi. I was happy. Everyone there could speak English, but they'd speak to me in Twi and expected me to respond in kind. I did look like them after all. But I couldn't. I was embarrassed, ashamed, even sad. Then I stopped feeling sorry for myself, and re-committed to re-learning my language. It didn't take long before words and phrases returned to me, but I never became a fluent speaker.

I wanted to teach my children how to speak Twi, because I wanted them to move around the country with more ease than I could in my youth.

But not being fluent in Twi, I wasn't sure where to begin. And there were no easily accessible resources for teaching the language to kids. I thought about writing a book for them and asked my parents to speak to my kids in Twi every time we Skyped. It worked for a while, but then I realized that I wasn't giving my parents a chance to just talk to their grandkids. Plus, my daughter wasn't one for talking during Skype anyway, she just showed them her toys and jumped around. To say the least, I was overwhelming myself in the process.

Ultimately, I realized my expectations weren't reasonable. So I went back to the drawing board, did some research and found a few ways to integrate ways to learn Twi into our lives. I stopped making learning a language a high-stakes exercise. It's a slow process, but it's been fun. I'm enjoying expanding my vocabulary, too! Here are some tips that have helped me:

1. Keep it simple

If I teach my kids a word in English, I'll teach them the same word in Twi. I'll count my baby's toes in English, then repeat it in Twi. Or sometimes, I'll just count in Twi. We have a blast. And the numbers really stick in my head.

2. Use technology

There aren't many resources out there for young Twi speakers that are colorful and as light-hearted as English, French or even Spanish language resources, but they're out there. You just have to look. I stumbled across this very short (and catchy) counting song on YouTube. As my eldest kid is at that age where they want to watch videos, I use that opportunity for her to watch this short video.

3. Keep it light

As many of my cultural touchstones come from Ghana, I've noticed I slip a few things in without even thinking about it. My daughter and I have a joke around the word "wahala," which is a Pidgin English term. Pidgin English is a West African version of Creole, which is used in a few countries in West Africa. Or when I ask for something, I'll say "Please" and "Thank You" in English and in Twi. Trust me, it works. I didn't think the words were sticking until my daughter said (without a second thought) "you're welcome" after I said "Me dase" ("thank you" in Twi).

4. Get creative

I'm not saying make your own songs up, but you could, if you're inclined. If you're not, maybe try to translate a nursery rhyme. It'll be good exercise for you, if you want to learn with them. If you can't do it, maybe a family member can help.

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5. Most importantly, relax

We all know that kids pick up on stress. I remember when speaking Twi, it felt like a chore or I was embarrassed by it, and I would clammed up. So I try not to put that on my kids.

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