Bilingual Babies: Teaching Your child Another Language

kids at inquisitive leaningMy four-year-old son is brought up in a bilingual household and it never ceases to amaze me how swiftly he switches from one language to another. I speak English to my son and my husband speaks Spanish to him. Although I speak Spanish to my husband, my son will always speak English to me and Spanish to my husband. Mealtimes can be interesting. If I tell my son in English to say thank you to abuelita (grandma) for his present, he will turn round to her and say, “Gracias abuelita por mi regalo,” knowing that she speaks Spanish. I find this fascinating: it’s as if my son instantly flicks a switch in his head!  If only it were so easy for us adults to learn another language.

Research shows that far from confusing children, learning two languages at once offers cognitive advantages including enhanced auditory and visual sensitivity. A study at the University of Singapore showed that bilingual babies get bored more quickly when repeatedly shown the same picture, and show greater interest when presented with an unfamiliar image. This could be because they have greater information processing skills than monolingual babies and so need a new picture to challenge them. Psychologist Janet Werker believes that growing up bilingual can lead to more flexibility in learning in general, although shes says you do not have to grow up bilingual to have these cognitive advantages.

Werker says that we do not yet know if there are any cognitive advantages to introducing another language in an unnatural way, or in a natural way with someone who isn’t mom or dad (an au pair, for example). Children tend to learn the languages they want to learn and if they see there is a real need and use for another language, they will speak it.

There is no doubt that speaking another language is an asset in the increasingly global world we live in. Starting young is a good thing as preschoolers are at an age when they are rapidly acquiring language and are naturally predisposed to picking up another one. If you want to introduce your child to another language, give him or her  a head-start and begin early. The important thing is to make that learning experience fun.

Here are some hints to help introduce your child to another language:

  •  Buy bilingual books and toys or check out your local library.
  •  Watch cartoons and children’s programs. You’ll find almost any language on YouTube.
  • Listen to and sing songs.
  • Make friends with families from different cultural backgrounds.
  • Visit shops and restaurants where foreign languages are spoken. Make an effort to learn a few simple words and use them when you visit: good morning, please, thank you.
  • Look out for foreign language classes for children. These should have a Speaking and Listening focus and involve learning through songs, games and play.
  •  Learn a foreign language with your child. It’s important for children to see that learning is a life-long process and it’s never too late (or too early) to start something new.
  • Model confidently ‘having a go’ at speaking another language, whether in a shop or on vacation. Don’t worry about your accent or correct use of grammar. These are generally adult concerns that children pick up on as they get older. It’s far more important for your child to learn the importance of communication and getting the message across.

But I’ll feel weird speaking another language to my child

Yes you will, excruciatingly weird at first, but most families who have tried it agree that after about two weeks it begins to feel more natural. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to teach a child how to throw and catch a ball; it’s the same with language.

But I’m not fluent in another language and my accent is terrible

That doesn’t matter; your child will still learn from you. If you are persistent, you will learn with your child. Native speakers make mistakes too and there are many different accents. Focus on your long term goal and you will see that your child does not have the same insecurities as you do. The long term benefits of learning another language will far outweigh any awkwardness you may feel at the beginning. If you need inspiration and something to aspire to, think of what Nelson Mandela once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”

Sources:

http://www.multilingualchildren.org/

Criado, Elia. Bilingual babies benefit from learning faster. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/bilingual-babies-benefit-from-faster-learning-9713028.html (Downloaded 27.03.2015)

Moskowitz, Clara. What Bilingual Babies Reveal About the Brian: Q&A with Psychologist Janet Werker. Available at: http://www.livescience.com/13016-bilingual-babies-brain-language-learning.html (Downloaded 27.03.2015)

 

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