Raising Bilingual Children
I grew up in England, however, every summer I visited Gibraltar, where my father is from. My Gibraltarian family spoke Llanito, a mix of English and Spanish. Although as a teenager my Spanish was very basic, it was always better than my classmates’ at school. Today, when I speak Spanish, people know that I am a foreigner, but are surprised when I say that I am from England. I am certain that hearing people speak Spanish around me as a child gave me an advantage over other learners, as an adult.
This is because children are better at learning second languages than adults. There are many reasons behind this; both situational and physiological. Situationally, basic language (necessary for beginners to learn) is more similar to everyday child language than to everyday adult language. It is much harder for adults to learn colours, shapes and farm animals, because they aren’t interesting enough! Physiologically, an adult’s brain doesn’t have the flexibility that a child’s brain has. This is why, as studies have shown, after a certain age, it isn’t possible to gain a native-like accent.
The question is: How can you make the most of this time for your child?
Babies hear everything – so start early! Hearing different languages will certainly help them to be able to imitate those languages when they start talking. Practise your English with your little one! As they begin to speak, learn some nursery rhymes with them. Try to find children’s books in English (or bilingual, as some are made today). There are some shops in Buenos Aires that sell English children’s books, such as KEL, SBS, Entre Libros and The Book Cellar.
As well as anglicising your child’s home environment – you can anglicise their outside world too! There are many bilingual or English-run kindergartens and day-care centres in Buenos Aires. Being surrounded by another language at such an early age can be fundamental in raising a bilingual child. If anyone tells you that concentrating on learning a second language at a young age can deteriorate their mother tongue learning, don’t listen to them! Studies show that confusion between languages and slowing in development are minor and don’t last long. In Luxembourg, almost all children are bilingual or trilingual by the time they finish primary school.
Of course, sending your child to an English-medium or bilingual school is a fantastic way to ensure that your children become bilingual; however, not all parents have this option. Becoming bilingual while receiving only basic English instruction at school is a challenge, but not impossible. In this case, it is fundamental to have a mixture of formal English learning (going to a language school or a private tutor once or twice a week) combined with interaction with English in other ways every day.
In Germany, The Netherlands and the Nordic countries, children’s television programmes aren’t translated from English. This means that even without studying English at school, children will have to understand English to watch their cartoons! If, from a young age, your children associate watching their favourite programmes with English, it will become normal. When they start to use technology, make sure that the apps they use and games they play are in English. Playing board games written in English is great too, even if you are speaking Spanish while playing.
Finally, never give up. Just 6 months without interaction with a second language could make a lifelong difference! It is very common for children to become less enthusiastic with a second language as they grow up. Stick to it! If one of you (parents) has always spoken to your child in a different language, don’t change just because your child responds in their preferred language. Ideally, your child wouldn’t feel forced to learn their second language, it should happen as naturally as possible. And, when that opportunity comes for your child to be an exchange student abroad – you have to be brave and let them go!
As you know, language learning is a lifelong effort. Paying attention to it throughout childhood will help your children for life.
By Stephen Devincenzi