Raising Bilingual Children: The First Five Steps to Success
by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association
When I was growing up, the only way to raise a truly international child was via an exorbitantly priced Swiss boarding school. Luckily, such elitism has been thrown out the window, and now parents raise multilingual children themselves. The children grow up just as world-savvy and sophisticated -- and actually know their own parents! Still for the do-it-yourselfer, a few tips can smooth the way.
The most common question people ask me is "How do I raise a bilingual child the best way?" "Easy, just talk to them!" is my tongue-in-cheek response. It seems almost impossible to imagine the baby transforming into a communicating creature, let alone one conversant in several languages. Although the miraculous progress from cooing to speech occurs in exactly the same fashion whether it transpires in one or in several languages, the practicalities are different. Here are the first steps to raising your very own polyglot tot.
- Family agreement: Even though agreement within the family is perhaps the most essential ingredient, I am sometimes asked, "What do I do if my partner doesn't want me speaking to our child in a language he doesn't understand?" An insecure spouse may fear being excluded from "the secret language" between the other parent and the child. Discuss and compromise. It is very important that couples find some solution that is acceptable to both parents as well as beneficial to the child.
- Enthusiastic, yet realistic: Once the idea of two languages has settled in, many people consider adding more. Usually the number of languages spoken within the household is enough for the child to absorb, but it's actually possible to successfully introduce as many as four languages simultaneously -- provided you can offer enough exposure and need for each one. Still, research suggests that a child needs to be exposed to a language 30% of his or her waking time to actively speak it, and since waking time is a finite quantity, so, too, is language acquisition.
- The practical plan: Next, you need to make sure you have a plan. Agree on who speaks what language to whom and then stick to it. There are endless variations on the two most successful language systems. The most common involves one person who always speaks to the child in the 'foreign' language. Anyone who is spending a significant amount of time with the child can function as this primary speaker. The second most common language system is where the whole family speaks in the foreign language. To add another language beyond those already spoken within the family, or if your family doesn't speak any foreign languages, you'll need to provide an outside source like an immersion program, a nanny or an au pair.
- Get together: Building a support network is probably the most underestimated success factor, so find others who are raising their children to speak your language. You'll benefit from their knowledge and be able to share both your doubts and your triumphs. It also ensures future play dates that will provide your child with the ultimate language teachers - other kids. Books, music, movies, and toys in your minority language are the most obvious ways to boost your child's exposure, but there is also an amazing range of other household items such as place mats, tableware, posters, etc.
- Be patient: Raising multilingual children requires patience, and there are going to be times when doubt sneaks in. As with most aspects of parenting, it's a long term commitment and there will be ups and downs. But remember, that's happening to the parents of the monolingual children too! Don't worry if your child doesn't speak his multiple languages as quickly or as adeptly as his peers. Instead focus upon his successes and marvel at the development of his little brain. Always praise, praise, and then praise some more! Know that when your child says, "I want a hug" in your language, you'll almost cry with pride. At that moment, it won't matter that it took some extra effort or that you had to wait a bit for the result.
And, hey, remember, you're not alone. Madonna, Andre Agassi, and Antonio Banderas are among those raising bilingual children. And if they can do it, why shouldn't you?
Raising Bilingual Children: The Snags
by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association
I speak Swedish and my husband's native language is English. When we had our two children, we had no doubt that we wanted to raise them with equal access to both languages. Now, years later, when I've made promoting multilingual child-raising not just my avocation, but my vocation as well, people ask me for the straight story, warts and all. "What is the difference, raising bilingual children?" "What do you wish you knew before you got started?"
It's clear to most of us that speaking multiple languages is a good thing, and learning multiple languages in the early years is a nearly effortless means to fluency. Your multilingual child will have a head start in schools during a time when more and more of them are requiring a foreign language. And once your kid knows two languages, the move to three, or four is much easier. Counterintuitively, the effects of growing up bilingually include superior reading and writing skills in both languages, as well as better analytical, social, and academic skills. Parents who are themselves involved in high level careers are already well aware that professional prospects abound for those with fluency in multiple languages. Helen Riley-Collins, president of Aunt Ann's In-House Staffing in San Francisco, who caters to many clients in high tech, investment banking and finance, says that more than half her clients request nannies who speak another language. "They want to give their children a head start in business in 20 years." So, that all sounds well and good, but what are the real drawbacks?
- Delay. Multilingual children tend to speak a little later than their peers. Although there is no solid scientific evidence to suggest a delay in speech, anecdotally there is a real sense among parents that multilinguals start talking three to six month later than monolingual children. If you think about it, it makes sense that a child learning two or more language systems might take more time, since they are actually learning twice as many words. But rest assured, even if your child did not walk at nine months, eventually he ended up walking just as well as those precocious ones. The same thing holds true for language, even when you are talking about more than one. Guaranteed!
- Mixing. Children learning two languages often slip back and forth between them, mixing up their words. This can disturb the parents, but can be even more alarming to the uninitiated. No worries. This tendency will pass once the child has built a large enough vocabulary -- around the age of four or five. Remember that the monolingual three year old often struggles to find the right word, and, for that matter, adults don't always find it easy to express themselves. In some ways, the multilingual kid has an advantage -- if he can't think of the correct word in Vietnamese, for example, then he can say it in English. While the rest of us are speechless.
- Effort. Perhaps the most easily overlooked drawback to taking the multilingual path is that it requires more effort on the part of the parents. Raising a multilingual child is a commitment. Much like piano lessons, you can't expect your little one to be a virtuoso overnight. Language learning is a long-term investment in your child and will require that you are able to provide enough language exposure. At times, you'll probably need to boost the second language and offer some extra encouragement. You'll need the persistence required to keep your family language rules as consistent as possible. But, if you can keep faith for the first four or five years while a solid language foundation is put in place, things get easier. Incidentally, the multilingual second child is a breeze, if your first child was raised that way. Your first will end up doing a lot of the work for you by simply being a natural chatterbox.
There's no doubt that multilingual children have more advantages, but it can feel a bit overwhelming to someone already struggling with diapers and feeding schedules; however, I have yet to meet a single parent who regretted the decision. But, the appreciation from your child, as usual, is probably another 20 years out.
About the author:
Christina Bosemark is the founder of the Multilingual Children's Association, your web-guide to raising bilingual children with expert advice, parent discussions, resource directory and articles. She is also mother of two trilingual daughters and co-founder of the Scandinavian immersion school in San Francisco.
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