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A bilingual child is becoming increasingly desirable these days; being able to speak more than one language is certainly an advantage in today’s society.

Some people wonder if raising a child in a bilingual home causes language confusion. Research shows that it does not. When children start learning language at birth, they have the capacity to learn many languages at once without getting confused, because as the brain develops, so too does the ability to separate one language from another.

The following considerations should help parents who are faced with the challenge of raising a bilingual child.

Start early

Scientists have found that children can pick up two languages from birth to seven years of age, and that the earlier they are exposed to foreign languages, the better. Based on my teaching experience and being the mother of a bilingual child, I would definitely agree with the “start early” advice.

One parent speaks
one language

Most linguists now agree that the best way to grow up bilingual is to have one parent always speak one language, and to have the other parent always speak the second language with the child. It makes for a much less confusing world for a child, and the child will be able to tell apart the languages much sooner.

My husband and I are raising a bilingual child (English and Mandarin). We started speaking to him in English and Mandarin from birth, and when he was two years old he hardly ever used any English with me. When we read stories at home, he always chooses Mandarin books for me to read. It’s clear that he can already distinguish between the two languages.

Consistency

Consistency is a central issue in early language learning. Have one parent consistently communicating in the same language, and not switching to another.

If you mix languages in the same conversation, young children will experience difficulty separating vocabulary and grammar into the appropriate language. The children may learn the “mixed” language as one hybrid language.

Good conversationalist

As a parent you need to be a good listener and provide good language models, by using rich vocabulary and by engaging your child in conversation. Providing books, music and even videos in both languages is a great way to stimulate language development.

Fun activities

Language is acquired through osmosis. Children learn language through regular exposure to the spoken language at home and in a play environment. An interested child will learn sub-consciously without realising that he is learning. Children learn to speak and read characters through enjoyable activities such as songs, drama, stories, games and play that capture their interest, as long as the content and form hold attention.

Tap into their interest

Whatever your child’s enthusiasms may be—whether a love of animals, dance or sports—make an effort to “imbue” these passions in the second language.

My 5-year-old son is really into volcanoes and earthquakes; he watches a lot of documentaries in English, so I find Mandarin books about them and read them to him.

Visits

The ultimate language boost is to visit the country where it is spoken. Total immersion for a couple of weeks has an amazing effect. And visits from friends or family also provide a valuable boost.

Last year my son joined the Learning Adventure Trip to China, which was organised by Julia Gabriel Centre for Learning. It was a great opportunity for him to practice the language in real life situations.

Books

I advise all parents: start reading at birth and never stop. Read your child stories in a first and second language but stick to one language within one book.

My husband and I have been reading one English book and one Mandarin book to my son every night before he goes to bed since he was three months old. He loves English books as well as Mandarin books.

Other kids

Join (or start) a playgroup for the second language. Children of all ages will learn from each other; there simply are no better language teachers than other kids.

When my son was on the immersion trip in China, he picked up a lot of words and sentences from the other Chinese children in the class. He is now still talking about the friend he made in that class and the activities he did with his Chinese friends.

Plan it

Parents need to consider the child’s self identity, self-esteem, and schooling options, as well as social factors when planning for bilingual learning. Becoming bilingual is a special gift parents can offer their children, but the gift must be planned and presented with care for it to be well used and appreciated. LWB

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