Knowing another language opens doors for children and adults alike. However, most educators agree that childhood is the ideal time for language learning. While their brain actually doesn’t work like sponges And it doesn’t happen overnight: children are more capable than adults of learning a second language and perfecting their native accent.
Whether you want to share your own mother tongue and heritage, give your child one cognitive boost or you want to prepare them for future study, travel and work opportunities, you need to give them plenty of exposure to the language and authentic speaking practice.
Two strategies that families often use are “one parent, one language,” where each parent always speaks one language with their child (e.g., mom speaks English, dad speaks Spanish) and “minority language at home,” where the family speaks less – spoken language at home and children learn the “majority language” in school and in the community. Other families use a mix of strategies to introduce their children to both languages, or take on the task of learning a second language with their children.
Depending on your home situation, this may require a lot of planning, effort and perseverance on your part. It can be tempting to give up, especially when you feel like you’re not seeing much progress.
Gabrielle Kotkov is a Montessori teacher certified in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) who works as a consultant for families and schools around language learning. She encourages families to be patient and have realistic expectations.
“It’s a long process,” she told HuffPost. “Learning a language generally takes five to eight years to become fluent.” And even once fluency is achieved, regular practice is essential to maintaining the language.
“Even if you don’t see the same progress every week, the progress isn’t linear and may not always look the same, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work,” Kotkov said.
She added that parents shouldn’t let their vision of perfection deter them. “I think a lot of people put pressure on themselves and say, ‘If I can’t achieve perfect bilingualism – whatever that means – it’s not worth it.’ And I really, really believe that there is value in every argument, no matter how big,” said Kotkov.
Children can form meaningful relationships with others even if their language is not fluent, and just knowing that there are many languages people use to communicate is valuable for a child in understanding them.
Be flexible and use the method that works best for your family.
Elizabeth Silva Díaz is a faculty member at Bank Street College of Education and former teacher of bilingual special education. Born in Colombia, she is raising her son bilingually so that he can communicate with his grandparents and other Spanish-speaking relatives.
“When my son was born, we decided to go with the one-parent-one-language approach, but quickly realized that wasn’t the style of communication that worked for our family,” Silva Díaz told HuffPost.
“I found that as soon as I started speaking in English with my husband, I forgot to speak in Spanish with my son. Instead, we use a situational and contextual approach to bilingualism,” she said, explaining that they use Spanish with the Spanish-speaking side of their family and English with the English-speaking side. Her son is now in a bilingual preschool and switches between languages there as well.
“Our bilingualism is dynamic and changes depending on the context,” said Silva Díaz.
Don’t worry that introducing two languages will hinder your child’s learning.
Grace Bernales is a California Licensed Speech Therapist. She says parents often ask her if using two (or more) languages in a child causes language delay.
“It’s one of the most common myths,” Bernales told HuffPost. “Teaching more than one language does not introduce language delay.”
In the beginning, your child will probably mix languages when speaking.
“Children who are learning to be bilingual/multilingual may mispronounce or mispronounce words and/or combine a sentence in both languages. That’s because languages influence each other and doesn’t necessarily pose a problem,” Bernales said. Your child’s teachers or pediatrician can help you decide whether a language assessment would be a good idea for your child, but nothing about being bilingual increases the likelihood that your child will need help.
In previous generations, immigrant families were often told not to use their language at home because it would interfere with their children’s English learning. However, we now know that this is not true. Children transfer their knowledge of one language to another and are able to learn more than one language at a time.
Mixing languages is “a natural part of their learning,” Silva Díaz said. “Language learning is not a process of simply adding a ‘second language’ to a ‘mother tongue’, but rather it is a fluid process in which languages influence and interact with each other.”
There is also no need to correct your child when they make mistakes – which will be the case in either language. It’s a natural part of the learning process. For example, if your child says, “I went to the park,” you don’t need to have them say it again by using “went.” You’ll hear how to use “went” correctly as you speak to them, and clear this irregular verb yourself without outside interference.
Provide authentic speaking practice opportunities.
Silva Díaz advises parents to “offer their child opportunities to deal with the different languages in everyday situations in a meaningful and authentic way.”
Traveling is one way to provide your child with these opportunities. “Exposing the language in its authentic context can significantly increase a child’s interest and understanding of the language,” said Silva Díaz.
However, a stay abroad is not a requirement. Authentic interactions can also take place with relatives or neighbors who speak the language. Silva Diaz notes that her son, for example, speaks Spanish when playing with his Spanish-speaking cousins. Children are particularly motivated to use a language when it offers an opportunity for interaction and play with their peers.
Keep in mind that your child will recognize very quickly who understands which language. If you are the Chinese speaking parent but your child knows that you understand English, they may continue to speak to you in English if that is their dominant language and it is easier for them.
It may make you feel like what you’re doing isn’t working, but Kotkov encourages families to “stay strong and speak the minority language because they’re still absorbing it and understanding it.”
If authentic practice is difficult to achieve, you can try introducing small amounts of speaking practice.
Kotkov suggests going easy and just using the language for bathing, or setting a timer for 10 minutes and trying to speak that exact language. Gradually you can extend the speaking time to half an hour. “Primary school age kids are really excited about this structure and timing,” she said.
There is no need to require your child to speak a language with specific people or in specific contexts. “Bilingual children naturally navigate between languages based on their language environment and the people they interact with. Forcing them to respond in a certain language can disrupt their natural language development,” said Silva Díaz.
Use all available resources.
While a back-and-forth conversation with a native speaker is the most effective learning scenario, there are many other ways children can learn vocabulary and improve their understanding.
Introduce your child to television, films, music and books in both languages.
“Watching a favorite show or reading a favorite book in the non-dominant language can make language learning fun and relevant,” said Silva Díaz. “We switched the language on our Netflix to Spanish and all the cartoons my son watches are now in Spanish. This gives him another opportunity to really be surrounded by Spanish in a fun context.”
Kotkov said she knows a mother and daughter who enjoy watching Master Chef Mexico Junior together. It’s an opportunity for the daughter to learn Spanish, and it also helps her mother keep in touch with the language that young people in Mexico use today, even if they don’t currently live there.
Books can be used developmentally for your child.
“If your toddler loses interest early, you don’t have to read the whole book. Instead, bring it to life by adding sounds to cars and animals, pretending to eat the food, and labeling the images in both languages,” Bernales said.
If your child can read and write, labeling different items around the house (fridge, window, etc.) together can also be a fun activity.
You may be able to find playgroups in your area or online that offer other opportunities to introduce your child to the language.
“Maybe the parents are still speaking the minority language and the children are still speaking the majority language to each other, but the children are still watching the parents use it among themselves and I think it’s important for them to watch adults using it.” using it “a social context,” Kotkov said.
Depending on where you live, you may find classes, preschools, and bilingual schools that teach the language you want your children to learn. Government-sponsored institutions like the Alliance Francaise And Instituto Cervantes also offer a variety of enriching activities.
Understand that bilingualism is a spectrum.
Remember that language learning is a process that will accompany your child throughout their life.
“Bilingualism exists on a continuum and individuals can have different levels of proficiency and levels of dominance in each language,” said Silva Díaz.
It is natural for one language to dominate at certain times or in certain situations, and there may be periods when your child understands the minority language but continues to speak to you in the majority language.
While you can always change your family’s language learning plan if the path you’re on isn’t working out, Kotkov recommends that you don’t “get too discouraged if things aren’t going as quickly as you might expect.” Know that much is happening beneath the surface.”