Bilingual Children: How to Introduce a New Language to Your Kid
It is no secret that learning a new language can be rather challenging. And as we grow up, it becomes more and more challenging to do so. That is why it is important that infants start learning a language at a young age. The key for learning a language effectively is none other than practice. Meaning, the more a person speaks it, the easier it will be to master it.
Unlike adults, children don’t really need to start off by memorizing grammatical structures in order to communicate. They are influenced and stimulated by the environment they live in. That is, in fact, exactly how they learn their first language, by listening to their parents speak it. So, at what age should kids start learning a second language? The answer is as early in their lives as possible. The younger, the better.
Many parents decide on waiting because they are afraid that this would somehow confuse their little ones or make it difficult for them to be at the same level as their classmates in school. The truth is that it won’t be confusing at all. Many studies have shown that the more languages a person is exposed to from a young age, the more it will help them socialize, and communicate better.
First of all, let’s take a look at the primary advantages and long-term benefits of bilingualism in infants:
The benefits of teaching your kid a second language
Superior listening, writing and reading skills
Task-switching and multitasking
How to teach a new language to your kid?
There’s a wide range of ways to introduce a language to a toddler. Most of them imply orality and playful activities, so you can get as creative as you want! Here you have a handful of popular methods:
1. One language per parent
When both parents come from different countries, or even if they speak a second language as well, they can agree on who will speak which language to the child, especially the one that is spoken the least. For example: In a family that lives in New York, and have a one-year-old, Mom speaks Spanish, and Dad, English. This way, the little one associates a face to a language, and learns both of them in parallel. Moreover, the key is to reinforce the language that is not commonly spoken within the social circle of the infant, in this case, Spanish. It is imperative to always use the same language so as not to end up confusing them. When Mom speaks in her tongue, the kid understands that they should respond similarly, otherwise they won’t be able to understand each other. However, if Mom speaks both Spanish and English, most probably, they will end up speaking English anyways, because it’s the language they are most fluent in, and also because they are aware that the mother can understand them, which fails the purpose of reinforcing their second language.
2. Hire a bilingual caretaker
Similarly to having the parents speak different languages, a nanny that speaks a foreign language can also fulfill the same purpose. Let’s say the sitter’s mother tongue is German. When you hire her, ask her to speak in her own language as much as possible. Following the previous example, if the child already knows Spanish, and English, the language that should be reinforced in this case is German.
This is a good activity to develop reading-comprehension skills, as well as listening skills. Choose a book in the language you want your little one to learn. Pick a story that you know will be engaging for them. If your kid doesn’t know how to read yet, you can read out loud to them, but if they already do it on their own, have them read to you. This way, it helps them become acquainted with both phonetics and spelling. Once the story’s finished, ask them a few simple questions —who’s the good guy in the story? Who’s the villain? What happened to the main character? Where did the characters live?— to see how much they understood, or have them do a drawing about their favorite moment.
4. TV shows or films
Although exposure is a key factor in learning a new language, being in touch with it in different contexts is what’s going to guarantee that the vocabulary repertoire is wide. Pick a movie or a TV show to watch with your kid. In case the original language isn’t the one you want them to be exposed to, make sure the dubbing is on. This is also a good way of bonding with your child. Similarly to storytelling, after you’ve finished, you can talk about what you just watched, which also works for practicing speaking.
5. Linguistic playtime
Whenever you’re playing with your kid —with dolls, with puzzles, drawing, cooking, etcetera—, take that opportunity to test their knowledge on the language you’re teaching them. For instance, if you’re playing with blocks, ask them (for instance, in Spanish) “what’s this color?” or “how do you say it in Spanish?” Don’t forget to always talk to them in the language you want to reinforce.
Misconceptions about bilingual children
The reason why many parents are indecisive about teaching their little ones a second language is because they heard somewhere that doing so could affect the child’s cognition negatively. Remember that these are myths therefore there is no scientific proof that any of the following statements are true. Here I share with you three of the most popular ones.
Teaching your child more than one language can result in delays in speech: Research has already proven this to be completely false. Bilingual (or multilingual) kids develop communicational skills at the same pace as those who only learn one language.
Mixing two or more languages will confuse your kid: If toddlers start to mix languages when they speak, that is normal when it comes to bilingualism or plurilingualism. As they grow up, they will become more acquainted with separating them. That’s what the one-parent-per-language method is for, to help and encourage them to separate two different languages.
A child that is exposed to more than one language will struggle in school: It has been proved by researchers that there are many advantages to being a bilingual kid, such as developing problem-solving skills, multitasking, and high cognitive abilities.
If you’re interested in reading further about this topic, here are a few readings that I found very useful in my research for this article, and that I believe are worth checking out.
Marian, V., & Shook, A. (2012). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. Cerebrum : the Dana forum on brain science, 2012.
P. (2019, October 3). Bilingual Kids Do Not Get Confused Speaking Two Languages. Colegio York. https://colegioyork.com/bilingual-kids-do-not-get-confused-speaking-two-languages/
7 Myths and Facts About Bilingual Children Learning Language. (n.d.). HealthyChildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/school/Pages/7-Myths-Facts-Bilingual-Children-Learning-Language.aspx
Benefits of Learning a Second Language at an Early Age. (2020, March 30). Lead With Languages. https://www.leadwithlanguages.org/why-learn-languages/early-childhood-elementary/
Let me know in the comments what other myths you’ve heard about raising bilingual or multilingual children. Are you raising any bilingual kids yourself? If so, feel free to share your tips and methods in the comments!