Sunday, November 1, 2009

Strategies for teaching your child more than one language

1. Agree on raising your child with 2 or more languages.
Both parents need to agree in order to be successful in this endeavor.

2. Know what to expect and when.
Educate yourself on what this process implies and be ready to act. This is not a simple task, and you need to educate yourself in order for the process to be successful. What to do if the child is lagging in one language? What to do, if the child presents a language impairment? Why does my child seem to understand everything in the minority language but does not want to speak? What do I say to relatives who do not agree with teaching my child, more than one language?

3. Determine how many languages and why you want your child to learn them.
Research indicates that a child needs to be involved in that language for at least 30% of the waking hours in order to learn it. More than 2 or 3 languages is not going to be a successful endeavor.
Do you want your child to learn a certain language in order to teach him or her, your ancestor’s culture? Do you want him or her to learn a second language because you value the benefits of knowing more than one language? Do you live in a community where more and more people speak another language different from the language spoken by the main stream community? Do you believe that knowing a specific language will benefit your child socially and professionally in the future?

4. Decide on a language teaching system.
How are you going to teach your child? Two popular systems used by many parents are One Person One Language (OPOL) and Minority Language at Home (ML@H).

OPOL is a popular system where each parent speaks a different language to the child. For instance, Mom speaks German and Dad English. I had a college friend that grew up speaking English to her Dad and Spanish to her Mom. She used to tell me that when she was little she thought all dads in the world spoke English and all moms spoke Spanish. It was not confusing for her! She thought it was a natural thing. She told me that when she realized that was not the case, she felt very proud to be “bilingual”.
ML@H is a system where the minority language is used at home and the child is immersed into the majority language through everyday activities outside the home. For example, the child learns Russian at home and English at school.

In order to be successful, it is important to select a system that the family can stick to. It is also important to make sure the child is stimulated in all the languages. As with any monolingual child, having diverse experiences with language is critical for adequate language development. Bilingual children, as well as monolingual children, need to be spoken to and read to all the time. They benefit from frequent modeling and fun play activities where their vocabularies can expand.

5. Do not wait until later.
Start now!!! Now is the ideal time. Remember that the baby’s brain is optimal for learning languages during the first 3 years of life. If your child is older, it is not too late. All you need is a plan and the intentions to follow through.

6. Declare your intentions and have a plan.
Even before your baby is born start preparing yourself for this task. You can start using both languages while pregnant! Research indicates that babies can discriminate sounds and voices since they are in the bound.

My cousin in Boston has 3 kids, and she used the OPOL system ever since her first child was born. She speaks Spanish to her kids and her husband speaks English to them. She prepared herself for this task by buying story books in Spanish and reading to her kids in Spanish since they were first born. Although she says it is not easy, she is always looking for ways to have her kids immersed in Spanish.

7. Establish a support network.
Look for support groups and friends with similar interest. Parent groups can help you stick to your plan.

It has now become more popular to have daycare centers that offer a second language immersion program in the community. In the U.S. public schools are also beginning to offer “dual language programs” for English monolingual children and children with another primary language different from English. In these programs, half of the day is spent in the classroom using English and the other half of the day is spent using the minority language that is prevalent in the community. For instance in Houston and Bryan Texas, English and Spanish speaking students attend the same dual language classroom. The English speaking children are learning Spanish and the Spanish speaking children are learning English. Each group of children supports the other in their efforts to learn a new language. This type of setting teaches children respect for other cultures. It allows all children to be empowered by the cultural and linguistic knowledge that each group brings to the classroom.

8. Obtain relevant materials.
Books, videos and songs in the languages you are teaching your child are great ways to bring the language to your child through meaningful activities. The internet also offers great ideas.

9. Set goals but be flexible.
You might find obstacles along the way. It is okay if you need to modify your plan.

10. Be patient and keep going.
The process of teaching more than one language can be difficult, and may present obstacles. As children grow older, they are more interested in using the primary language in the community (usually the language spoken at school). Kids do not want to be different, and they look for approval from their peers.

It is natural for children to want to speak the language they use at school. Cognitively it is much easier to continue using the language they used for 7 or 8 hours at school than to switch to new language.

Be ready to encounter these obstacles and find creative ways to overcome the problems. Traveling for the summer to a country where the minority language is spoken is a great way to compensate for this problem. If traveling is not an option, look for summer programs in your community where your child can be immersed in the minority language. Of all the bilingual adults that I have met, no one seems to be sorry for knowing 2 or more languages. Quite the contrary, most of them are glad they do and make efforts to perfect the language as they get older.

Following these strategies does not have to be perfect. The important thing is to have a basic plan to follow with your intentions and to have fun connecting with your child along the way!

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1 comment:

  1. Great post!

    You mention, "Research indicates that a child needs to be involved in that language for at least 30% of the waking hours in order to learn it"

    Do you have a citation for this? I'd like to learn more about it.