Monday, 25 January 2010

Bilingual Baby Steps - Just do it!

WHY would you want your child to speak with you in a language that is not the language of the country you live in and/or that your partner does not understand? Especially if this language is NOT one of the major world languages, not commonly used for trade or communication, shared with few people in the global world?

BECAUSE: Language is so much more than a means of communication. Languages is a maker of cultural and personal identity, it is part of you, if you grew up speaking it and will provide a deep emotional connection.

Along with language come worldviews, philosophies and identities, expressed for example in common sayings or metaphors. Certain cultural concepts only make sense in that language and are lost in translation. For example, “blue” has a different connotation in English (moody, sad) than in German (drunk), so even if it gets perfectly translated, the metalanguage is different.

If you want to transfer some of the values that you grew up with to you child, I am sure there are certain expressions that your parents used – would they have the same ring in the new language? Maybe, but more likely not. So if you want to share you childhood with your child (never mind your life philosophy), the best way would be with (and in) your childhood language, regardless of the “commercial usefulness” of your mother tongue.

So when should you start? Right away!

If you want to raise your child bi-lingually / bi-culturally, you should start at birth (if not earlier by communicating to you child in the womb). I spoke and sang only German to my children from the start. When we looked at picture books, I said the German word. Reading the same book with their dad, meant hearing that word in English.

If your child starts to speak, encourage it, even if it is the “other” language. Always be positive - but stick with your language! Thus my answer to a child saying “dog” would be “Ja, HUND!”, and not “Nein, Hund”. Acknowledge that they identified correctly, but make sure to provide the word you want it to use with YOU. At some point, if the child knows both words, but the other language is said first, you could ask “What does Mommy call it?”.

There is a common misconception that teaching two languages will delay your child’s speech development and often it is said that especially boys should learn one language first, since their linguistic abilities lag behind the girls. I can not stress enough how WRONG this is. I have two boys (one with a disability) and both developed their language skills at the same speed than other children. When my oldest had a problem with answering “Why?” he figured it out in German and English within 2 days – it was a cognitive problem, not a linguistic one! A Hungarian friend of mine in Germany has a handicapped child and was told from every professional she ever saw NOT to confuse the boy with two languages. She didn’t listen and now, even though he might never be able to read, the child understands and speaks German and Hungarian. (It also enabled her to connect with her child on a deeper emotional level while she was struggeling to come to terms with the diagnosis).

If you think you want to be on the safe side, not jeopardize language development and wait with the introduction of a second language until the children are older, consider this:

Most likely, if children are older, they will not speak the new language as a mother tongue, and, depending on their musicality, they might develop an accent. After the age of 6 months, children start to hear sounds selectively and shut out words with different sound patterns than their parents’ language. The ability to hear and therefore produce nuances (like the German Umlauts, the African clicks or the Chinese tonal heights) rapidly declines thereafter.

Starting to speak in a different language all of a sudden at a certain age will also probably be a shock to the child. It would be hard for them to understand why one parent will not speak ‘their’ common language anymore and the child might therefore refuse speaking the new words at all. In order to rationally understand the reasoning that you want them to learn a second language, the child would have to be quite a bit older (at least 7, I would assume) at the same time this is when window of ideal language acquisition is almost over.

For you, the ‘new’ native speaker, the discipline of breaking the habit of speaking to your children in the other language would have to be enormous. You would probably find yourself switching back often, if understanding is too slow or painful. That does not mean that you should not try, if you want to share your language with your child, but – for whatever reason – have not started yet. It just means it would be be a hard 6 months at least for the two of you, until you can converse in the new language and it would require a lot of discipline and patience for both parent and child.

Older children still can achieve native fluencey – they have a better shot at it then adults and obviously most people learn foreign languages when they are older.

Finally, there is never a guarantee that you children will be fluent in your language anyway: Just imagine your previously bi-lingual child hitting the teens and refusing to speak anything else than his/her peers… – but more about this in the next blog,

Raising Bilingual Children - Intro & Research

If you and your partner speak two different mother tongues or you live in a country that speaks another language than your family at home, you could give your children a great gift for life: two fluently spoken languages - BILINGUALISM!

There is plenty of research that suggests, children who learn a second language are more creative and better at solving complex problems. They develop meta-linguistic awareness (natural awareness of how language works), cognitive flexibility (since choosing between languages can develop a flexibility of thinking that can be applied to other problem solving areas) and social sensitivity early on. (Nursery World 07 May 2009) Studies at Goldsmith University in London showed that bilinguals outperform similar monolingual peers on both verbal and nonverbal tests of intelligence and tend to achieve higher scores on standardized tests (in secondary school), if their first language is supported alongside English.

In addition, individuals who speak more than one language have the ability to communicate with more people, read more literature, and benefit more fully from travel abroad and knowing a second language also gives people a competitive advantage in the workforce.

So academic talk aside, how do you raise bilingual children in today’s world?

There are basically two ways of raising bilingual children that almost always work: the one-parent-one-language approach and the home-vs-outside language evironment. Other options - like language 1 in the morning, language 2 in the afternoon or different languages on different days of the week (yes, I’ve met a family with this approach!) – tend to confuse the children more than encourage learning.

In our house, we have used the one-parent-one-language solution ever since the children were babies. I speak only German to the kids, my husband speaks only English. It just so happens that we have also lived in English speaking countries for their childhood so far, which nicely balanced out the fact that my husband is home less – so more German at home and English in the evenings with dad and during the day with others. If mom and environment speak the same language, dad will have a harder time to teach his language, if he is not home during the day.

For the rest of the blog, I will report from this perspective – teaching German in an English speaking environment - in order to avoid the constant “mother tongue or non-environmental language” vs. “local language or main environmental language”…

Raising children bilingually, requires a lot of discipline from the parent that does speak the local tongue – it is sometimes VERY tempting for me to slip into English, even if it is just the occasional word. Here are the main pitfalls I have discovered –

a) Using single English words in a German sentence, because I can’t think of the German quick enough or the English is less complicated (there are some REALLY long words in German, where the English has just a syllable or two)

b) Speaking to a friend / neighbor / colleague in English and inadvertently saying something to the child without switching

c) Being in a playgroup and separating a fight, having to speak English so that the other child (and mother!) understands that my child is being punished and has to apologize. Same goes for having house guests that do not speak German and to be polite speak English – and of course announce plans for the day or meal times in English so that everybody understands.

d) Having a spouse that does not speak your language and insists on his language to be spoken only when home. (Luckily that’s not the case in our household, but I know plenty where it is)

Some solutions that I have found to the above mentioned issues:

You need to really try to never let the other language creep in. Your mother tongue will deteriorate by itself ANYWAY - slowly over time, if you are not practicing with anybody else but your children. If you let foreign words take a hold, the mixing will accelerate and you (and your children) will end up speaking a mish-mash that’s incomprehensible to most people but you. So discipline is key and self-checks are recommended.

I have always made a point to tell friends, playgroups and relatives that I speak only German to my children, that it is not meant to offend, but that it is necessary for their language development. It would never say anything about them behind their back and if it concerns another child, I will say it in English, too. All of my friends have been very understanding of this issue, even though I imagine it must be hard at times, listening to me explaining something complicated in German to my son while they don’t understand a thing and wait patiently! When we have guests, I make sure that all important information is told in both languages, FIRST German, then English. (Even better, I tell the kids in German and they can go tell Grandma & Granddad in English.)

Coming up in the next blogs: Bilingual Baby Years & School Age, Tips and Trick to smuggle the second language into everyday life, how to deal with a doubtful / resistant partner & family!