Bilingual education for your child
The best way to raise a bilingual child is to expose them to both languages at the same time. That means,do not favor one language over the other. Simply speak naturally to your child in both languages. After the age of nine months you can actively teach your child the two languages by demonstrating what things are around the house. I found that before nine months, there is no great need to teach them, but rather speak to them naturally. That is bilingualism.
This post is a little long so I added some organization to it. Here are the major topics I will cover.
- Real bilingual education mistake stories
- Bilingualism experts where wrong
- How to raise a bilingual child
Why I know about raising a child with two languages
Here are my credentials for writing about bilingualism.
- I have a daughter who is both American and Polish like me. We live in Krakow, Poland. We are raising her in two languages.
- My mother was raised bilingual with English and Ukrainian.
- My father was raised bilingual with English and Polish.
- I was not raise with a multilingual education but had to learn languages as an adult. I now teach and learn languages in Europe.
- I teach bilingual children as well as adults.
I do not profess to be the world expert on bilingualism or bilingual education, however, these are my personal experiences with bilingual children both as a father and a teacher.
I do not profess to be the world expert on bilingualism, however, these are my personal experiences with bilingual children both as a father and a teacher.
How not to teach children languages
I believe, and linguistic science confirms that people learn from mistakes. If you are an adult language learner, one of the best ways to learn is to make mistakes. It is our mistakes that teach us. Similarly, the Ancient Greeks favored tragedy over comedies. They preferred this because they believed we can learn not only from our mistakes but from other people’s mistakes.
Therefore, read and learn. I will give you five stories or examples of families that do not raise their children bilingual.
Bilingual education story one
I meet a British couple while on vacation in Greece. They were raising their children in Greece. They choose Greek to be their children’s first language. This decision was because the environment they was growing up in. They were given this language advice, that if a child learns two languages they can easily be confused. Therefore, it is better to learn one language at a time. This linguistic advice came from a local linguistic expert. Therefore, their intentions were to teach them English later, in school with the other children. This is wrong thinking. It is wrong because the children will learn their second languages, English, as a non-native speakers. In fact, they will never get those years back, and lose the window of opportunity to make them truly bilingual. For their whole life English will be stored in the second language area of their brain, rather than their primary language area of their brain. They will never master their second language and never truly be bilingual, even if they sound like they are fluent. Brain imagining confirms this and so does my personal experience.
Bilingual education story two
Another mistake in raising a child with two languages is being too passive. For example, I have meet a couple of American fathers in Poland who teach English to foreigners. Yet, amazingly these teachers are very passive about teaching their children English. Their children understand English, but speak Polish. That is the children do not want to use one of their two languages. Why? Children are children.
The children’s fathers are more poets or backpacker type teachers. They love their children very much, but when it comes to playing an active role in teaching them English, they are more passive. They enjoy talking philosophy or watching the football match on TV with their ex-pat friends in a pub than being active in their kids language learning. They wrongly assume, their children will pick up English anyway. This is a wrong assumption. Why? Because kids gravitate toward the path of least resistance. Unless you actively guide children with love, patience and time, their learning during these critical years will be less than optimal. The result is they will not be perfectly bilingual.
Bilingual education story three
I also meet a British father who thought it was cool to speak Polish his son. In my opinion this is very selfish as this child will not learn English like his father learned English. I was doing this myself a little. I love speaking in different languages. So I was practicing my Polish sometimes with my daughter sometimes or mixing English with other languages. However, one of my students point this out to me. I was unaware I was doing this. I do not know why I was not aware, it was my fault.
I think most parents’ mistakes are things they are not aware of consciously. If you want your child to be bilingual you have to be proactive. If you and your spouse speak several languages, then each one of your needs to speak in the language(s) that you are the strongest in speaking. Otherwise, your child will speak with an accent. In fact, I met children growing up in multilingual homes with permanent accents because their parents did not teach them in the right way.
On the other hand, another point which might sound like it contradicts some of what I said above, if you live in a country, favor the other languages. Why? Because all the children’s friends, school and TV will give them immersion. To be bilingual children your children need your help with the non local language. If you are not worried about your child’s linguistic development, become worried. Quite your job. Stay at home with your child and work with them. Better than saving for an Ivy league school, is teach and love them when they are young. This goes for fathers and mothers. What would you, yourself rather be a polyglot with multiply passports and experience with many cultures or have a piece of paper that says you have a degree? If I had to choose I would choose the former. However, the irony is if your child is a polyglot then they will have a better chance in getting into a top school. So stay at home if you can and have your kids love languages.
Does this sound like radical advice? It is not. I do not have a cushy life. However, I hope to raise happy children. What is more important to you, your important career and money or your children?
Bilingual education story four
A couple of my neighbors are rich. One is a Lawyer and one is a Doctor. They have both asked me should I teach their children who are around two years old English. I said yes, right now, start today. Get a private tutor, it does not have to be me. Or put them in a class with native speakers. There are English schools for the young. There is an English church in town and an English story time at the American bookstore and many other opportunities for the kids to have immersion even without spending money. Get involved in your child’s language learning. They said, ah they will learn it in high school, and they took a vacation (the third that year) instead or investing in their child. Again, I think this is very selfish.
Bilingual education story five
I was teaching a bilingual native speaker in English and Polish. The girl was ten years old and lived in the USA until she was eight. However, since moving to Poland she was lagging behind in her English language development. This was because since she moved to Poland and attended school her parents and friends spoke only in the Polish language.
Her mother was determined that the way I teach her daughter was with grammar drills. This is because this is the way she learned English as a none native speaker. Her mother wanted this naturally bilingual fluent native speaking child to spend my lessons with her doing a lot of book work. Book work meant learning grammar forms and pen and paper, rather than conversation. For example, practicing the present perfect tense or the difference between passive verse active speech and English grammatical constructions.
The child so disliked languages learning she would not do her homework and complained all the time, and then said she did not like English. This is the wrong way to teach a native speaker bilingual child. A child like that needs to learn vocabulary naturally and just practice and enjoy the language. Read books at her level and have fun with the language. She should read books like Sweet valley high and Nancy Drew or movies like Princess Diaries or learn about animals and the world in English. She should not be punished with boring grammar and book work, while in the presence of a native speaker. These grammar books were made for non-native speakers to learn a language as an adult. A bilingual child’s brain functions totally different. Eventually I taught her my way. That is, lots of natural conversation and just get her using and enjoying being bilingual, watching films using the Internet in English and talking about it during the lessons as well as some vocabulary work. Her mother was from the old school and did not like it and wanted her to return to grammar books. I eventually gracefully gave up as I did not need the stress.
What can we learn from these bilingualism failures above
I think the lessons from the above stories are as follows:
- Bilingual children should learn both languages simultaneously, with equal development with both languages. Do not worry about measuring their linguistic development with their peers because they are special bilingual children.
- Do not assume a child will become perfectly bilingual naturally just because one or two parents speak a language. You need to be active and not passive in the teaching process.
- Put your child’s development before you career and lifestyle and education in school. You, and not your school or any experts are responsible for your child’s development.
- Do not teach bilingual children in methods made for non-native speakers. Make it fun not work.
In my opinion ‘experts’ are often full of ideas and ego. Therefore, they lose their objectively. In the past psychologist were recommending the approach mentioned above, that is teaching a child one language at a time. They were wrong for many reasons.
Children have a window to learn languages in a native way. Once this door is closed it is closed forever. Even if you are fluent in a second language as an adult you will store the information in a different area of the brain and it only mimics real fluency.
Children that learn two or more languages as a child’s brain develops a more flexible structure than non-bilingual children. In fact, these children have a greater protection against senility in older life and mental decline. They are also in general just smarter. How do I know this? Modern studies on the brain confirm this.
A child might initially develop linguistically slower learning multiply languages at once, but this challenges their brain and they develop compensatory strategies for learning a language. Therefore, by the age of ten they are equal or greater in both languages.
My parents did not make my trilingual for this reason. They were advises by experts to only teach English. The experts were wrong. While the experts are trying to give a definition to the word bilingual you and be focusing on teaching your child Spanish or another target language.
How to give your child a bilingual education even if you are not multilingual.
With all children with love and patience. They are only children.I do not believe in the hard way, at least not for the first twenty-five years. From zero to eight is when IQ is determined in a child as the child’s brain prunes unstimulated connections. From eight to eighteen a child’s emotional stability is determined. If you mess it up during these two phases they will spend the next twenty years of their life trying to recover. Therefore, with love and patience try to be good to them.
The first thing to remember is, they are only children. So try not to be goal oriented when working with them. Simply be there and spend time with them and have fun with them.
Concrete ways to raise a bilingual child
That being said here are some concrete ways to raise a child to be bilingual is you do not speak a two languages yourself.
- YouTube is in my opinion the best resource. It has short clips with native speakers which are made for kids.I use YouTube as a create source of multilingual sounds for them to digest. Kids get addicted to this early and can watch three or more hours a day starting at about age one. Next move to kids movies in your target language. Children love to watch the same thing over and over again.
- I also love books. Reading every night from age 3 months or earlier, in different languages. Even if you are not a native in the language, reading to them with an accent is better than nothing, just my opinion. I think some linguists will cringe at this.
- Enroll them in a bilingual day care. Or if your target language is Spanish for example, a Spanish day care even if you live in the USA. If they have friends that speak the target language bilingualism will be more natural.
- Perhaps this is my best advice. Hire a native speaking tutor. Sell your car if you can not afford it. There is nothing more important then loving your child. Use local classified ads that exist in every city. There are always students from other countries that will tutor your child at ten dollars or less. If you spent thirty dollars a week on your child your child would be bilingual for life. If you live in the USA are you telling me you can not afford thirty dollars a week? I live in Poland and I live on only a few hundred dollars a month. Stop making excuses and start investing in your child while they are young, rather than saving for that big high in the sky Ivy league education that in my opinion is not worthy as much as enriched cognitive function of your child’s brain while it is still flexible.
Use your imagination. If you are proactive. Be positive and relaxed about it. Although I make a strong argument that you should make introduce bilingualism to your child, there are no shoulds in life. But why not introduce bilingualism into your child’s life and enrich it.
Here is a series of posts I wrote on languages and bilingualism . Here another site worthy of consideration on bilingual education.
You are smarter than you think. Look in your town and with multimedia resources to teach your child more than one language. If you have a desire, you can have a bilingual child and it will enrich their lives.