In today's world, the advantage of knowing more than one language can make a huge difference in many areas. When it comes to children, understanding two languages (or more!) opens up all sorts of opportunities to interact with children from other cultures and to develop a deeper appreciation for all people.
There is a common myth that only parents who are bilingual themselves are capable of helping their children learn a language other than their native tongue. Believing this myth has caused parents to miss out on the chance to journey with their children through the wonder that comes from learning new things and having fun while doing so. If you truly desire that your child becomes bilingual, all you need is the commitment and the willingness to begin the journey.
Of course, how you progress on this journey depends a great deal on circumstances relevant to you and your children. Some examples include:
- Your own command of languages. While it is not impossible for parents to help children learn a second language that they themselves do not know, it is certainly easier if one or more parents are fluent in this second language.
- The age of the children. How you go about introducing a second language is directly influenced by the knowledge base your child already possesses and what type of learning tools are appropriate for your child will vary when the child is a toddler, adolescent or teenager.
- The educational opportunities that are available in your community. There may be ample resources you can call upon locally, or you may have to import a few of your own.
- The reasons behind the desire for your child to be bilingual. Perhaps you want your child to have a deeper appreciation for some aspect of his or her family heritage. Your goal may be based on equipping your child with a skill that could lead to more career options in the future. Or you may simply want your child introduced to a different culture. Knowing your reasons may help you identify specific tools that will move you toward that goal more efficiently.
Let's explore some of the basics of helping your child become bilingual.
Step 1: Begin with a Core Language and One Secondary Language
In just about any learning situation, there is a need to relate new information to data already processed. When it comes to learning a second language, your child will find the task much easier if they already have a grasp of those same concepts in the primary language used in your community. If your child knows that the clear liquid we drink is 'water' in English, it is much easier to grasp that the same substance is known as 'agua' in Spanish.
This means refraining from attempts to teach your children more than a primary and secondary language during their early years. Keeping the learning process to a simple comparison between two languages will make it easier for your child to absorb the information. There will be plenty of time to introduce a third language into the mix when they are older if you like.
Step 2: Be Willing To Learn Along With Your Child
Even if you are somewhat fluent in the second language, there is a good chance that you have forgotten some of the basics unless you speak it frequently. Deciding that you will learn or refresh your knowledge while your child engages in the learning process helps to accomplish two things:
- You and your child get to do something together. Children will love the extra attention from their parents. Even older children will get into the swing of things as they make a game out of competing with their parents to master that secondary language.
- Your child's confidence level will increase significantly. Knowledge is often power, but never more so than with a child. The sheer joy that comes from successfully learning something new carries a sense of awe and wonder that we jaded adults seldom remember. But to a child, saying that first complete sentence in Spanish is a watershed event that will encourage him or her to dive in and learn even more about all sorts of things.
Step 3: Identify Resources in Your Local Community
Today, it is often possible to find nearby locations and educational settings where the second language is used with some frequency. This may be a house of worship that uses the language during services. The setting may be an ethnic restaurant where the language is routinely spoken. Locations where people communicate using the second language are an excellent learning opportunity. Owners and servers at ethnic restaurants are often happy to teach a child how to correctly pronounce a menu item in the native tongue related to the cuisine.
Some communities have dual language programs that provide a structured process for exploring two languages at the same time. There may be culture exchange programs that arrange for students at local universities to teach some of the basics of the secondary language to children. For older children, look into the availability of a language class at the local school. Take advantage of all these resources and incorporate them into your overall efforts.
Step 4: Speak the Second Language in the Home Regularly
One way to make this fun for your child is to declare one evening a week as Second Language Night. Everyone in the household will speak the secondary language for the entire evening. Both you and your children will know the fun and the frustration of coming up with the right words to convey thoughts and ideas. As you and your child become more proficient in the language, schedule additional times during the week where you indulge yourselves in this type of fun.
While learning in a classroom is helpful, and there is no doubt that studying a secondary language is important, few efforts will lead to familiarity and ease of use like speaking the language in a non-judgmental atmosphere on a regular basis, such as the home. Your child is more likely to feel comfortable with making mistakes and working to correct them when none of their peers are around, especially if you are doing likewise.
Step 5: Encourage Reading and Writing Along With the Spoken Word
To be truly bilingual, it is important to know how to write in a second language as well as speak the words. Reading books using the language not only makes it possible to learn proper pronunciation; it also serves as a visual aid that can help the child replicate the spelling when writing the words.
Along with books printed in the second language, don't forget to make use of the Internet. There are many sites especially for children written in different languages. Engaging in some of the games and learning activities on those sites will make the process of learning even more fun for your child.
Step 6: Move at Your Child's Pace, Not Yours
Attempting to force your child to absorb more information than he or she can reasonably handle will not further your goal. In fact, it will likely lead to resentment on the part of the child, damage his or her confidence in the ability to master the second language, and possibly kill all interest in the activity. Does it matter if your child needs a little more time to learn how to master the use of verbs in Spanish or French than you required? Keep the learning fun, move forward at a pace that is right for your child, and be sure to recognize each success along the way.
Helping your child to become bilingual is a journey that will yield benefits for everyone involved. You have the joy of knowing your child has another skill that will be helpful later in life. Your child has the fun of doing something with you and also finding all sorts of ways to make use of this new skill.
While bringing up your child to be bilingual does take time and commitment, the effort often pays off in many ways. Regardless of whether your child is just beginning to speak or is already well established in the use of a primary language, there are fun and creative ways to encourage the learning of a second language. Take a look at your circumstances today and begin the process of developing a plan to assist your child in becoming bilingual.