Speaking only English (schoolgirl French and now a little bit of Mandarin) myself, I have always admired people who are bilingual and can actually think in a second language. However, when I started meeting toddlers who were bilingual I was completely in awe of them, and their parents! It’s hard enough to teach a child to speak, how do you teach them to speak two languages simultaneously?
For bilingual parents, especially those married to someone whose mother tongue is different from their own, this is a no-brainer! They can start teaching two languages from birth, without even thinking about it; one parent would always speaks one language and the other the second language. The child associates the different sounds with the different parent as “mama speak” or “papa speak” and only comes to realise that they are speaking different languages towards the age of 3 or 4.
It is often said that young children are "like a sponge" because they soak up information at an incredible rate and anything new they come across is interesting. They are constantly imitating you and, without you realising it sometimes, you are constantly teaching them. As parents I think we owe it to our children to consider carefully what it is that we want them to learn; we are busy teaching them to read, write and interact nicely with people, how about continuing that so that they can do it in a second language as well? A little extra effort now is giving them a gift they will always have; languages are for life.
Research shows that the best age for a child to learn a foreign language is during their early years (0-7), when their brain is wired for learning new sounds and anything new is both fun and exciting. It also shows that learning a second language increases a child’s creativity, flexibility and tolerance.
But what if, like me, you’re not bilingual? Well, you and your child can learn together! In this situation it is generally considered better to wait until your child is able to string words together and they can understand that an object can have more than one name. With practise it isn’t long before they start thinking in two languages! Recently a (Korean) mother of one of Alex’s classmates asked me if I chose the British International School for Alex because of their daily Mandarin lessons?! Being British obviously I chose it because it’s British but her question made me think. Alex, who is 4, loves his Mandarin classes – they sing songs, learn poems and play games, all in Mandarin of course. He has no preconception that it is a difficult language to learn and, as such, he is picking it up somewhat faster than I am!
So, what’s the best way to go about teaching your youngster a second language? Firstly, the best person to teach your child a second language is you! You are already teaching them their first language and you have the best relationship with them. At a young age children do not know the difference between work and play, so, as long as what they are doing is fun and interesting to them, they will keep doing it. That said, a child’s attention span is short – when their concentration has gone it is best to stop and move on to something else.
Diglot Books, a company established to help parents like us find ways to teach our children a second language, has some great ideas on their website. These include; denoting a particular doll or teddy to speaking only the second language, setting the scene with cultural music, listening to stories in the second language and providing total immersion activities, such as eating out in a particular restaurant or holidaying in the country of your chosen language. Some of that sounds like good motivation to me too, I’ve always fancied a trip to China! Take a look and you'll also see their publications, which are all dual language and designed to bring languages to life for both children and their parents. They have books in Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese at the moment, with many more to follow, and they are looking for volunteers to help them develop other languages.
You can find even more ideas by looking at their website www.diglotbooks.com, and maybe you will be inspired to look at some of their books too, all of which are dual language and designed to bring languages to life for both children and their parents. They have books in Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese with many more to follow, and they are looking for volunteers to help them develop other languages.
At this point I should probably declare that it was some friends of mind who started Diglot Books. Wilma, who is Dutch was trying to teach her two year old the alphabet in both Dutch and English and found it confused her daughter to see a picture of a duck next to the letter "d" in an English book and alongside the letter "e" (for eend) in a Dutch book. Mulling this over with another friend, Alison, they decided to create a bilingual ABC book that only used words that began with the same letter in both languages - inspirational! This allows children to quickly associate the sound with the shape of the letter, eliminating the confusion between the languages.
So, is this article just a blatant advertisement for my friends’ books? Well, yes, I do want to support their venture as they are a small company with big ideas, and fantastic products. BUT I also think that the gift of a second language is something for all of us to consider giving our children.
Excerpt of an Article by Louise Molyneux published in the Ibu Magazine, Malaysia, March 2011