Raising a bilingual or multilingual child is easier than you think, as there are many ways to teach your child another language and encourage your child to learn new languages. The key to teaching your child a new language is starting when your child is young. The benefits of being bilingual or multilingual go beyond conversing.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, more than one in 5 school-aged children speak a language other than English at home. That number of bilingual speakers is projected to increase in the coming years. Many parents who once thought teaching their child two languages might hurt the child’s ability to learn their first language have been proven wrong. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, children who learn two languages develop speaking skills as quickly as their peers.
Experts caution that parents must realize that, at first, children may have smaller vocabularies in both languages. The number of total words they know, however, is the same as a monolingual child. And, of course, as children work with the languages, they learn both fluently.
“It is always a difficulty to learn a new and different language,” says Judy Chen of the New York Chinese Cultural Center, which starts teaching Mandarin to children before their fourth birthday. “However, once you get the hang of it, it becomes easier and easier. For younger children, it is easier for them to retain new things they learn.”
Children who learn multiple languages benefit in many ways. Kristin and Jeff Graham, who have children enrolled at Nasledie Center in New City, became interested in language classes as a way to explore their Russian heritage. “It was an easy decision to pursue the learning of Russian language, music, and art, and we made it part of their growing experience,” Kristin says. “We believe knowing another language can only help. We also hope that someday they will pass it down to their children.”
Benefits aren’t limited to a better understanding of children’s heritage. According to a recent National Health Institute study, children who grew up learning multiple languages are better at switching between tasks. The skills in understanding and speaking more than one language, like refocusing from a mentally demanding task such as writing an essay to a more artistic one such as painting, engage working memory, inhibition, and shifting. Other studies show increased neural activity in response to completely unfamiliar languages, too.
Although these findings seem groundbreaking, they’re not. It’s simply a matter that many studies that were conducted in the past didn’t control for socioeconomic status or education levels.
Your child will better learn a foreign language before age 12, whether it be Russian, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Portuguese, or Italian. And he will see benefits throughout his life.
A 2011 report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics expects the employment of U.S. translators and interpreters to increase 22 percent between 2008 and 2018. And, as domestic jobs outsource or branch out to other parts of the world, employers need to break the language barrier. Job candidates who are bilingual in both English and another language can expect to receive higher salaries, too. According to Salary.com, the range of increase is between 5 and 20 percent more pay per hour.
“Whichever career our children choose, knowing another language can never be detrimental,” Chen says. “Many people believe Americans are ignorant to the outside world. By learning another language, which help’s children learn about cultures, we can prove those who think Americans are ignorant wrong.”
Parents who are worried about the toll learning another language can take on children’s schedules shouldn’t fear. Many classes, like the ones offered at the New York Chinese Cultural Center or the Nasledie Center, are offered weekly or several times per week. Additional cultural classes—usually dance—that use the language that is being studied are often offered as well. Classes are often more laidback than at traditional schools; children complete a variety of activities including singing songs, playing games, or making crafts to learn the language. Older students may use workbooks.
Even if parents don’t understand the language, they can still help their children learn it, Chen says.
“Chinese is not the easiest language to learn, and a little motivation goes a long way,” Chen says. “Parents can also take Chinese with the kids and learn with them. This way, they can both practice it together at home. Many of our parents regret not having learned Mandarin at a younger age and don’t want their kids to go though the same thing.”
Although their children will pick up the new language first, parents shouldn’t be frustrated.
“After age 12 learning a brand new language can be much more difficult, but it’s not impossible,” says Tamara Krokhmal of the Nasledie Center. “We encourage children and adults of any age to consider the many benefits of learning a new language. Bilingual individuals can apply their language skills if traveling abroad, too.”
Parents don’t have to learn another language for their children’s language acquisition to be successful. There are many songs and nursery rhymes available on the BBC website. Children who are already avid readers can get copies of books like Bob the Builder in French (“Bob le Bricoleur”). Little Red Riding Hood becomes “Cappuccetto Rosso” in Italian. Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer editions have been translated into multiple languages as well. Toys, games, and flashcards exist in multiple languages, too. If you’re child is enrolled in language classes, ask her teacher for recommendations.
Older children who know the basics of a foreign language have more options for practicing speaking, reading, and writing. They can find a pen pal they would like to exchange emails with. Those who like computer and video games may choose to learn through those avenues; the Muzzy series, My Spanish Coach, or free language podcasts from iTunes are also popular.
For concrete suggestions about how to teach your child a language you do not know, check out our suggested tips and tricks.