Raising a Bilingual Child

Being able to speak more than one language is a valuable skill in today’s global marketplace. Researchers now know that learning to speak another language at an early age is an advantage. A baby is born with the ability to hear all languages or at least the sounds that make up any language on earth. As a baby goes through its first year, it sorts out the sounds that make up the languages (phonemes) being spoken around it and gradually loses the ability to distinguish the sounds that do not occur. This is one of the reasons why it is easier for a child to learn languages.

Children’s brains develop at an incredible pace in the first six years. Billions of pathways and connections are being built. Once a child understands a vocabulary of about 50 words, their language acquisition begins to blossom rapidly. Parents can start their child on the path of bilingualism from the time they are born. Here are some ideas on how to help this flowering of language in your child.

Habla español? If there are native speakers of two different languages in the household, this is a great opportunity for the baby to hear the sounds of the two languages. Due to the way a baby’s brain develops, it is important for a speaker of each language to spend time with the baby each day. The speaker needs to hold the baby and talk with his face about 12 inches from the baby. This is because a baby’s eyes and ears are still developing. The speaker, using his native language, can talk to the baby about anything. Playing tapes and videos has been shown to be ineffective when a baby is less than three years old; it is the personal touch which counts.

Label. As your child develops elementary reading skills, assist their vocabulary development by labeling items around the house in both languages. Play games with your child. Try the Naming Game. You point to something and say its name in one language and your child says the name in the other language. Do ten items and then reverse the roles. Now your child picks an item and says the name in one language and you respond with the name in the other language.

Read often. Sharing bilingual books which have the story written in both languages is a good way to develop reading and grammar skills in both languages. Libraries frequently have a small section of children’s books in foreign languages. If you do not find any foreign language books in your local library, suggest they add such books to their collection.

TV programs after age three. Watching TV programs, particularly cartoons, is very popular with children. Researchers have found that after about their third birthday, children start to process information gathered from TV, DVDs, and CDs. Cartoons and children’s programs are available which have segments on foreign languages. Cable and satellite TV offer channels which broadcast solely in foreign languages. Check your programming guide to see if there is programming appropriate for your child.

Pen pals. Everybody loves to get mail. It can be the old fashioned kind delivered to your door or an e-mail in your computer’s cue. You can find pen pals through the internet and sometimes schools will set up exchanges. However, good sources for letter or e-mail exchanges are your family and friends. Find trusted family members or friends who are willing to write to your child. If you do not have this luxury, then send notes to your child yourself. Learning to write and read both languages is an excellent preparation for further language mastery. (Interestingly, many people who grew up in two-language households can speak both languages, but only read and write in one language.)

For more ideas on developing languages skills during the early years of childhood, check out my series of articles titled “Help Your Child Learn to Read”. The tips in the articles can be applied to developing skills in any language.

Prepare your child for our connected world by increasing their ability to understand more than one language. Start as early as possible. Keep both languages floating around him and your child will absorb them.

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