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,

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