Guest Post: The Power of Plush: How Stuffed Toys Boost a Child’s Bilingual Ability – Bilingual Monkeys

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ADAM’S NOTE: I love this inspired guest post by Heather Broster! Full disclosure: I had a big collection of stuffed animals as a child and continued this “passion for plush” with my own kids. Stuffed animals were a fun part of my efforts within my own family and I’m really happy to share Heather’s creative ideas so that more parents can make the most of this engaging and effective strategy. Thank you for writing this guest post, Heather! May the “power of plush” help families everywhere experience more success and joy at their bilingual or multilingual aim! 

The Power of Plush: How Stuffed Toys Boost a Child's Bilingual Ability

Heather Broster is a mother to a multilingual child, a linguistics graduate, an aspiring polyglot, and the founder of two ‘word of the day’ websites: Daily Italian Words and Love Spanish Words. On these platforms, she shares daily words with audio pronunciation, example sentences, and explanations for everyday use. Originally from Canada, she now resides in Wales, UK, and has also lived in Japan and Italy.

The Power of Plush: How Stuffed Toys Boost a Child's Bilingual Ability

In just a couple of weeks, my son will celebrate his fourth birthday. The realisation that he has transitioned from toddler to child is astounding on its own, but it also marks another significant milestone: four years of communicating exclusively with him in my non-native language, Italian.

Throughout this time, I’m fairly certain I’ve only spoken to him in my native language, English, a handful of times—once when I quietly whispered “I love you” in his ear when he was born and occasionally to ensure English monolingual speakers around us understood our conversations. (That bemused look my son gives me when I switch to English serves as affirmation that our bilingual journey is on the right track!)

People often inquire about the strategies I use to ensure our bilingualism flourishes. While tactics like the one-parent-one-language approach, extensive reading, regular exposure to native speakers, and keeping all media in Italian have been vital for us, there’s a secret weapon I’ve found particularly effective but often overlooked by parents…

Stuffed animals.

In our household, that ally is Cioccolato, his plush owl.

Interested in learning more? Here’s why I credit Cioccolato as one of my most valuable assets in raising a bilingual child.

The monolingual owl

Ever since I bought my son Cioccolato for Christmas, I made it clear that he is an Italian owl who only speaks Italian (well, and a bit of “owl-ese”). This means that whenever we pretend to converse with Cioccolato, the default language is always Italian.

This strategy is particularly effective if your child is hesitant to speak the minority language. You can explain that whenever your child’s favorite toy comes out to play, everyone needs to switch to the minority language so the toy can join in on the fun.

Teaching grammar

It isn’t uncommon for one language to have a grammar pattern that does not exist in another language. For example, English doesn’t have a distinct second-person plural “you” like the various Romance languages, including Italian, which uses “voi.”

Because my son and I typically converse one-on-one, there is rarely an opportunity to use “voi” instead of the second-person singular “tu” (you). By including Cioccolato in our conversations, I can address my son and his owl together using “voi,” thus teaching him this important grammatical pattern.

Another good example is the formal “Lei” in Italian, which, as you probably guessed, is only used in formal situations. Since my son and I naturally have an informal relationship, the only opportunity he has to hear “Lei” is on television. To address this gap, I often devise games, such as playing shop, where Cioccolato either acts as the customer or the shopkeeper who must use the “Lei” form. Recently, during independent pretend play, my son actually used the “Lei” form, indicating that the strategy is indeed effective.

The Power of Plush: How Stuffed Toys Boost a Child's Bilingual Ability

Blame transfer

As we all know, young children are well-behaved about 10% of the time and into some kind of mischief the rest of the time! If you are constantly at odds with your strong-minded little one, it can eventually affect your relationship with them and your bilingual goals. After all, learning a language should be fun and enjoyable. If a child only ever hears that language when they’re being yelled at, they may start to dislike it.

This is why I sometimes playfully shift the blame for my son’s misbehaviour to Cioccolato, especially if the misdeed isn’t too serious. For instance, if my son has tossed pasta on the floor, I might say, “Oh Cioccolato, did you make that mess?” Or if he has left his bedroom light on, I might ask, “Cioccolato, did you leave the light on again?” If he blames the owl, as he often does, I’ll encourage him to correct the owl in Italian. This way, I can address the behaviour without directly reprimanding my son over a small infraction, encourage him to use his Italian, and usually generate a few laughs in the process.

Indirect teaching

If my son and I are talking and he uses an English word or sentence, instead of directly asking him, “What’s the word for X in Italian?” which might put him on the spot, I’ll address the owl instead. This relieves the pressure on my son to respond immediately but still provides him with the chance to learn the missing vocabulary. Moreover, by directing the question to the owl, I can repeat the new word several times without sounding repetitive or getting on my son’s nerves. Here’s a sample conversation we might have:

Me: Cioccolato, come si dice “dog” in italiano? (Cioccolato, how do you say “dog” in Italian?)
Me as Cioccolato: Non lo so, come si dice? (I don’t know, how do you say it?)
Me: Si dice “cane”…cane cane cane! (It’s “cane”…cane, cane, cane!)
Me as Cioccolato: Non riesco a ricordarmela! (I can’t remember it!)
Me: Ma dai, sì che ci riesci. Cane, cane, cane! (Come on, of course you can. Cane, cane, cane!)

Encourages reading

My son, at just shy of four years old, is an early reader but also a lazy one. The only way I can get him to read willingly is by organising a treasure hunt where he reads short phrases that lead him to a prize, usually a cookie. However, I’ve discovered that if I ask Cioccolato to read instead (and by Cioccolato, I mean my son reading out loud in a squeaky voice), he is more eager to participate. He even enjoys correcting the poor owl’s reading when he stumbles over a word!

Give it a try

As we’ve seen, stuffed animals can be invaluable allies in raising bilingual children, whether you’re a non-native speaker like me or fortunate enough to be a native speaker of the target language. Especially if there aren’t many other native speakers around to support you on your journey, these plush companions offer a fun and effective way to encourage language learning. Give it a try—you might be surprised how enjoyable it can be!

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