Knowing another language opens doors for children and adults alike. But most teachers agree that childhood is the perfect time to learn a language. While their brains don’t actually work like a sponge and it doesn’t happen overnight, children are better able than adults to learn a second language and master a native accent.
Whether you want to share your mother tongue and heritage, give your child a knowledge boost or prepare them for future study, travel and job opportunities, you will need to provide them with plenty of knowledge of the language and authentic speaking practice.
Two strategies families often use are ‘one parent, one language’, where each parent consistently speaks one language with a child (eg, mother speaks English, father speaks Spanish), and ‘language minorities in the home’, where the family uses less – The language spoken at home and the children learn the ‘majority’ language at school and in the community. Other families use a combination of strategies to introduce their children to both languages, or undertake a second language learning task alongside 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 don’t feel like you’re seeing much progress.
Gabrielle Kotkoff is a Montessori teacher with a certificate in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and works as a consultant with families and schools about language learning. Families are encouraged to be patient and have realistic expectations.
“It’s a long process,” she told HuffPost. “It generally takes five to eight years to learn the language until you become fluent in the language.” And even when fluency is achieved, regular practice is necessary in order to stick with the language.
“Even if you don’t see the same amount of progress each week, progress is not linear, and it may not always look the same, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t working,” Kotkov said.
She added that parents should not let their ideas of perfection get in the way. “I think a lot of people put pressure on themselves, ‘If I can’t practice my bilingualism perfectly—whatever that means—it’s not worth it.'” I really, really firmly believe that any amount of exposure to language is valuable, Kotkov said.
Children can form meaningful relationships with others even if they are not fluent in their language, and just knowing that there are many languages people use to communicate is good for a child to understand.
Be flexible and use the method that works best for your family.
Elizabeth Silva Diaz is a faculty member at Bank Street College of Education and a former bilingual special education teacher. Born in Colombia, she is raising her son to be bilingual so that he can communicate with his grandparents and other relatives who speak Spanish.
“When my son was first born, we decided to try the one-parent, one-language approach, but we quickly discovered that wasn’t the communication style that worked for our family,” Silva Diaz told HuffPost.
“I find that once I start speaking to my husband in English, I forget to speak to my son in Spanish. Instead, we use the situation and context approach of bilingualism,” explaining that they use Spanish with the Spanish-speaking side of their family and English with the Spanish-speaking side English. Her son is now in a bilingual nursery, and is switching between languages there as well.
“Our bilingualism is dynamic and changes based on context,” said Silva Diaz.
Don’t worry that introducing two languages will hinder your child’s learning.
Grace Bernales is a licensed speech and language pathologist in California. She says parents often ask her if using two (or more) languages with a child will cause a speech delay.
“This is one of the most common myths,” Bernales told HuffPost. Teaching more than one language does not cause speech delay.
At first, your baby will likely mix languages together when speaking.
“Children who learn to be bilingual/multilingual may say words incorrectly or by mistake, and/or may put together a sentence using both languages. This is due to the influence of languages on each other, and is not necessarily a concern,” Bernales said. Your child’s teachers or pediatrician can help you decide if a speech assessment would be a good idea for your child, but there is nothing about bilingualism that makes your child more likely to need help.
In past generations, immigrant families were often told not to use their language at home because it would interfere with their children’s learning of English, but now we know that’s not true. Children transfer their knowledge of one language to another, and they are able to learn more than one language at a time.
Silva Diaz said mixing languages is “a natural part of their learning”. “Language learning is not simply a process of adding a ‘second language’ to a ‘native language’, but rather a fluid process in which languages influence and interact with each other.”
Nor is it necessary to correct your child when he makes mistakes – which he does in both languages. It is a natural part of the learning process. If your child says, for example, “I went to the park,” there is no need to make him say it again with “went.” They’ll hear you use “gone” correctly while you’re talking to them, and sort out this irregular verb for themselves without any outside interference.
Provide real opportunities to practice speaking.
Silva Diaz advises parents to “create opportunities for your child to interact with different languages in everyday situations that are meaningful and real.”
Traveling is one way to provide your child with these opportunities. “Exposure to a language in its original context can greatly enhance a child’s interest in and understanding of language,” said Silva Diaz.
But spending time outside is not a requirement. Authentic interactions with relatives or neighbors who speak the language are also possible. Silva Diaz She notes that her son uses Spanish when playing with his Spanish-speaking cousins, for example. Children are especially motivated to use language when it provides opportunities to interact and play with peers.
Note that your child will quickly identify who understands which language. If you are a Chinese speaking parent, but your child knows that you understand English, he may continue to speak to you in English if it is his dominant language and it is easier for him.
This may make you feel like what you’re doing isn’t working, but Kotkov encourages families to “stay strong and speak the language of the minority because they’re still getting it and they’re still getting it.”
If authentic practice is hard to come by, you might try introducing small doses of speaking practice.
Kotkov suggests taking a low-risk approach, using only the language at bath time, or setting a 10-minute timer and trying to speak only that language. Gradually, you can increase the amount of time you talk to half an hour. “Kids of primary school age are really excited about that structure and timing,” she said.
There is no need to require your child to use the same language with certain people or in certain contexts. Bilingual children naturally move between languages based on their language environments and the people they interact with. “Forcing them to respond in a certain language can disrupt their natural language development,” said Silva Diaz.
Use all available resources.
While having a back-and-forth conversation with a native speaker is the most effective learning scenario, there are plenty of other ways for children to pick up vocabulary and improve their comprehension.
Introduce bilingual television programmes, movies, music and books to your child.
“Watching a favorite program or reading a favorite book in a non-dominant language can make language learning fun and relevant,” said Silva Diaz. “We’ve switched the language on Netflix to Spanish and all the cartoons my son watches now are in Spanish. This provides another opportunity for him to be really surrounded by Spanish in a fun context.”
Kotkoff said she knows a mother and daughter who enjoy watching Master Chef Mexico Junior together. It’s an opportunity for her daughter to learn Spanish, and it also helps her mother stay connected to the language that young people in Mexico use today even though they don’t live there at the moment.
Books can be used in a manner appropriate to your child’s development.
“No need to read the entire book if you have a young child who loses interest early on. Instead, bring it to life by adding sounds of cars and animals, pretending to eat food, as well as putting stickers on pictures in both languages.”
If your child can read and write, categorizing different items around the house together (fridge, window, etc.) can also be a fun activity.
You may be able to find playgroups in your area, or online, that provide other opportunities to introduce your child to the language.
“Parents may still be speaking the minority language and the kids talking to each other in the majority language, but the kids are still watching the parents use it with each other and I think it’s important for them to notice the adults using it in a social context,” Kotkov said.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to find classes, preschools, and bilingual schools that teach in the language you want your children to learn. Government-sponsored institutions such as Alliance Française and Instituto Cervantes offer a variety of enrichment activities.
Understand that bilingualism is a spectrum.
Keep in mind that language learning is a lifelong process that your child will go through.
“Bilingualism exists on a continuum, and individuals can have different levels of proficiency and control in each language,” said Silva Diaz.
It is normal 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 route you’re taking isn’t working out, Kotkov recommends not getting too frustrated when things don’t happen as quickly as you might expect. Know that there is a lot going on beneath the surface.”