The gift of being bilingual
More children in the world are raised bilingual than monolingual. Yet the science in this area, with respect to educational achievement in reading and writing, is relatively new.
There are many advantages to being bilingual:
- An increased awareness of the overarching components of how language works: grammar rules, letters and sounds, rhythm, vocabulary, etc.
- An increased capacity for self-expression: languages reflect cultural values and life-styles – many languages have their own unique words that reflect concepts not easily translatable into another language. Bilingual people can pick and choose the specific word/concept they wish to use.
- Brain adaptability: the bilingual brain can switch between languages to think and express itself in the language of choice.
- Cultural and social sensitivity: language is an integral part of cultural identity. It follows that being able to communicate in different languages will ignite awareness and sensitivity to people from different countries and cultures.
- Learning two or more languages strengthens brain pathways that will aid the learning of further languages or language-based skills.
It is important a child is raised to be proud of their home language. Confidence in the language spoken at home will build a child’s sense of self-worth, as well as providing the skills and brain pathways to learn a second language.
Raising a bilingual child is a gift, offering an immense wealth of brain flexibility and cultural possibilities.
Whatever language a child is raised in, it is the quality and quantity of the language that is important: entertaining conversations, nursery rhymes, songs, books, stories and many other components (all covered in this book).
Top tips for parents raising a bilingual child
- Talk a lot to your child in your home language. The quality and quantity of language experiences is the key to your child gaining all the benefits from being raised in a bilingual household.
- If one parent (grandparent, uncle, etc.) is bilingual, and the other main caregiver is not, create clear systems around language use: Mum might talk to her young child in her first language in the daytime, and at dinner time English is spoken because the other caregiver is monolingual; OR one aunty always speaks in English, while another aunty speaks in the young child’s first language and takes him to a music lesson offered in this first language. A young child has the brain flexibility to adapt to different adults speaking in different languages.
- Offer your child a whole bundle of language experiences in his first language: Books, songs, rhymes, word games.
- If your child goes to some form of kindergarten or school, help the teachers and community weave some key words, phrases and songs in your child’s first language into the day.
- When your child switches from one language to another, celebrate this as the gift it is: your child is using the breadth of his language/vocabulary to express himself.
- Label the language experience for your child: at Grandma’s house we speak German; at Uncle Tom’s house we speak English, etc. Such clarity will help your child classify the languages she communicates in.
Extracted from Raise Your Child to Read and Write: A Guide for New Zealand Parents from Birth to Seven Years, by Frances Adlam (Potton & Burton $39.99)