Parents all over the world, not just in Singapore, raise bilingual children. However, it takes effort and may not come naturally if our language usage in school or at home is dominated by English. There are also many myths surrounding when is the best time to introduce another language or whether learning a second language will affect the child’s speech or language development.
Six Top Myths (and the Truths) That You Should Know About!
#1 Confusion between languages
Parents sometimes worry that young children will get confused between different languages, and this may appear to be supported when young children mix two languages in a single sentence. However, children as young as infants are able to differentiate between different languages and this is unlikely to be a problem between languages that are distinctly different such as English and Chinese. Moreover, the mixing of different languages in a sentence could be due to the way the parents or other caregivers use the languages – mixing two languages in a conversation as certain words are more commonly expressed in a language over the other.
#2 Compromise in proficiency
Sometimes we may think that learning one language proficiently is difficult, therefore trying to learn two languages will result in one language being compromised. While it is difficult to be excellent in both languages, this has less to do with bilingualism but more to do with the love for a language, and the level of proficiency practiced in daily usage. In other words, it is possible to learn just one language but still have a poor grasp of it if the daily usage is limited (to messaging and other forms of media that do not require proper grammar).
#3 Bilingualism is reserved for intelligent kids
We have an innate ability to learn language, unrelated to our intelligence. Intelligence has various aspects, and a child can have a strong linguistic intelligence and this can aid learning in other areas. Moreover, research studies generally indicate that exposing a child to a second language can assist with other brain functions such as memory retention, cognitive creativity and flexibility. Even for adults, there is a possible association that learning a second language can delay brain deterioration such as dementia.
#4 Limited window for bilingualism
Parents may sometimes think that they have missed the window of opportunity to expose their child to a second language, but language can be learnt at any age. While language may be more easily acquired before 3 years of age, ages of 4 to 7 is also a good time to learn a second language as different learning paths can be designed for children who have already learnt one language.
#5 Bilingualism leads to speech delay
Speech delay is associated with other conditions such as hearing impairment, anatomical abnormalities or impairment in cognitive, neurological or physiological functions. There is no empirical evidence that bilingualism is a cause of speech delay. While some bilingual children have been noted to start talking later than monolingual children, it is temporary and not common.
#6 Bilingualism comes easily
Like everything else, practice makes a difference. To be effectively bilingual, the child has to be exposed to both languages often and in an engaging manner that will spur his interest to improve his proficiency, such as learning through lyrics, poems, books or videos.
Six Tips On How You Can Raise Bilingual Children
There are a few approaches to raising bilingual children, differing on who and when the language is being used.
#1 One Parent uses One Language
This is easier to execute especially if you start from young, and consistently practice it. One parent will speak a certain language, while another parent speaks another language. The communication will likely feel more comfortable if you start early before the parent or the child get used to interacting in English when the intention is for them to speak in Mandarin. This method works best if both parents have almost equal time with the child.
#2 Both Parents work on the second language
If your child is older and has adequate exposure to the primary language (English) in school, both parents can communicate in the second language at home. That way everyone speaks the same language and the child cannot choose to speak English to one parent since both are communicating to him in Mandarin.
#3 Choose a time of day to speak a different language
This approach is more suitable to children who are communicating with their grandparents who may speak only in the second language. For parents who feel that they need to communicate in the language that their family is most comfortable with (instead of “working” on the second language all the time), this can be arranged for bedtime or weekends when the family wants to share more intimately with each other.
#4 Plan playgroup in a different language
The influence of friends in learning a language is significant – for instance, a child may unconsciously find himself speaking Mandarin at home if he has made a new friend who speaks mainly Mandarin in school. If you are able to, you can plan a playgroup with friends who speak comfortably in Mandarin.
#5 Persevere in consistency
Especially if you have not started on an approach, it can be awkward (and even tiring!) to consistently remind yourself or the child to speak in a different language. To be effectively bilingual, enough exposure has to be given for both languages. Persevere and be consistent in the approach your family has decided – before you know it, it becomes much more comfortable.
#6 Make it Positive
Be creative in how to immerse your child in the second language – you can use music (sing or dance), games, books, radio or videos. Other than being fun, it should also be positive; for instance, it should not be threatening the child that he has to speak and write Chinese for the rest of the week because he has spent too much time on the iPad! You can also offer variety by checking out external classes that help build a love for the second language, such as a Chinese drama class. Most of all, remember to praise your child for his efforts and let him know that you have noticed his improvements and how he has become more fluent!
Knowing more than one language can help open another “world” to your child – understanding a different culture, people from different countries and broaden his future circle of friends!