The Internet and air travel have, over the last century, shrunk the world. Places and people who were once months or even years of travel distant, can now be reached in a matter of days or even hours. Consequently, biracial or at the very least bi-cultural marriages have become much more common. At one time, the preferred method of acculturating such children was to speak the language of the land and let the children become native speakers, but it has more recently been found that babies are perfectly capable of learning more than one language in infancy. Furthermore, by learning more than one language, they acquire greatly flexibility of expression and lingual understanding.
How to Teach Your Baby More Than One Language
Needless to say, there is no supremely wrong way to teach your child language. Babies acquire language quite naturally, beginning with listening to their mother’s voice while still in the womb. Children who are born with a hearing impairment are at a disadvantage for this sort of learning, but it is not an impossible handicap to overcome. One of the keys is to detect the impediment early. But perhaps that is another article, although sign language is a separate language, in many ways, and one not to be confused with finger spelling words using the sign language alphabet.
Avoid Mixing Languages
The one way, perhaps, to avoid teaching your child more than one language is to mix the languages. That method can lead to slightly delayed communication between your child and the rest of the world. Some words are fairly universal, for example Mama turns up in many languages, especially the European languages, as the word for mother. But other words such as those that are not onomatopoeic can vary wildly from each other. For example, there are more than 80 different sounds for “spoon” including koilara (Basque), colher (Portuguese), cuilere (French), cuchara (Spanish), loffel (german) and sked (Swedish). For family members who might hear both languages regularly, if the baby says, “Darme sked!” (Give me in Spanish and Spoon in Swedish), the request is completely comprehensible. But if the little one has a Spanish speaking caretaker who does not speak both languages, he or she might be at a loss as to what the child is wanting. When mixed with baby talk, such as baba for bottle or PooBa for a favorite cuddly bear toy, this can lead to difficulty for both child and care taker.
One Speaker, One Language
In households where Mother speaks one language, and Father another, if each speaks to the child only in her or his native language the baby quickly learns to speak to Mama in her language and Father in his. If there is a grandparent or two who speak still other languages, encourage them to speak to the baby in their native tongue. Where that is not an option, and where the parents are themselves bilingual, they might choose to speak one language in the morning and their second language in the afternoon.
If a different language is spoken outside the home, babies can quickly pick up words from listening to mother or father speak to shop keepers or other people who speak the local language. Perhaps the family has a housekeeper or a regular babysitter or nanny who speaks the local dialect. Encourage them to speak in their own language to the child. Make every effort to make sure that your child has a working vocabulary sufficient for entering school. Moving from room to room or even remaining in one classroom where communication is a problem can be a very frightening and disorienting experience for a young child.
Television Isn’t the Answer, but it Can Reinforce
If you wish to teach your child how to speak more than one language, provide age-appropriate viewing material in more than one language. Look for alphabet tutorials, stories and more in the languages you wish to reinforce. Even children in monolingual households can pick up words from other languages by watching Sesame Street’s language lessons, or from viewing Dora the Explorer. Look for material that is fun and that provides an incentive for continued learning, such as an excellent story series that requires understanding the language.
Older children, those who are able to read, might benefit from viewing favorite programs with subtitles.
Visual and Kinetic Reinforcement
If you are going for early reading as well as dual (or more) language development, label the furniture and other things that the child uses with the appropriate word in all the languages he or she is learning. If your child is learning sign language, whether he or she has a hearing loss or not, then sign the word along with saying it. Thanks to its nature, sign language tends to cut across language barriers although fingerspelling will be specific to written and spoken language.
Benefits of Dual Language Learning
Aside from the obvious benefits of simply being able to speak more than one language like a native, there are added benefits to dual language learning. Psychologists, psychiatrists and other language learning specialists have found that learning more than one language at an early age increases brain activity, which might help ward of Alzheimer’s disease later in life, it encourages greater flexibility of thinking, and it adds a different vocabulary roadmap for thinking.
Developing Bilingual Babies in a Monolingual Home
Not everyone has the advantage of having parents who speak more than one language. If you want your child to grow up speaking more than one language, even though you only speak one, there are some ways you can go about it.
- Learn a new Language – combat your postpartum baby blues by immersing yourself in personal language instruction and practice your new vocabulary on your baby. If you cannot afford formal instruction or don’t have time for it, use recorded language lessons or free, online language instruction.
- Enroll your child in a Language Immersion Class – Language immersion is an environment where a single language is spoken. For example, if you speak English but you are living in a country where French is the primary language, the language at the local nursery school might be French. Your child is now in a language immersion situation. If he or she is enrolled during preverbal development, your little one is likely to absorb the local language from caregivers and the other children.
- Share language instruction video and television with your child – While you and your child are not likely to become fluent in Spanish from watching Dora the Explorer, you can pick up a few words. By adding other language instruction options for both of you, you increase language and cultural exposure.
- Read alphabet and picture books in another language aloud to your child – This, of course, needs to be combined with learning a second language which could be a challenge when, as a new parent, you are already coping with a lot of new things. But little books that are geared toward learning to read can also be excellent for introducing vocabulary for another language.
A final word: don’t become too serious about the language acquisition process. Sing silly songs, talk nonsense, and listen. Language acquisition of any kind should be fun!
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