Monday, 25 January 2010

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!

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