“I wonder which languages Number Three will have Mammy?”. Number 2 said this to me yesterday. “Deutsch, Brazilish [still obsessed with Brazil since the World Cup last year], English, Turkeys [I’m assuming he meant Turkish rather than gobbling like a turkey]. Maybe he’ll speak like a Roman soldier! What do you think Mammy?”
It seems Number Two, 4 years old and bilingual in English and German, believes we are born with certain languages in us. An interesting notion. How funny the world would be if we all had a language or two in our genes. Imagine the excitement of waiting to hear your child’s first words only to realise that they are in a language you don’t understand.
At the moment Number Three is nine months old and babbles away cheerfully or not so cheerfully, depending on his mood. While we have no idea what he is saying, he sounds like he’s chatting with us at the dinnertable and there is no doubt that he complains if his food isn’t getting to him fast enough! Hopefully he’ll progress from “mam mam mam”, “ga” and “abuwaba” to real words in the next few months. But it may take longer since he, too, is being raised bilingually.
After seven years of bilingual family life, I think we’ve got this nailed. Here are the five things you need to know to raise children bilingually successfully.
1. Strict separation of languages: I only speak English with the children and my husband, The Bavarian, speaks German with them. It is easier for each of us to stick to our mother tongue and the boys have picked up both languages so easily, like little sponges soaking up water. Our pediatrician told us that if the languages are separated, i. e. if the child consistently hears one language from one person and another language from another person, they can distinguish them better. Think about it for a minute – a baby has no idea what language is. He hears words. How is he supposed to know which words belong to which language? However, if he hears one set of words (a language) from one person all the time and another set from another person all the time, he can distinguish and react to those people with the set of words he knows from them.
2. Repetition of the language: This is especially important if you live in a situation where the child doesn’t hear one of the languages outside of the home.
Hearing (passive repetition): CDs of songs in the language you want the children to pick up. This will give them a feel for the language in a fun way. Have the CDs on in the background while the children are playing. They will absorb the songs without realising.
Games and tasks (active repetition): From snap to tidying up the toys to setting the table, lots of games and household tasks provide the perfect opportunity to introduce and practice new words.
When Number One was a baby, we used to play the following game with him to encourage his English language skills. His favourite cuddly toy was Eyeore.
“Eyeore, where are you?” we’d call in a sing-song tone, looking round for the cuddly toy before getting ready for bed in the evening.
“Are you under the sofa?” (exaggerated looking under the sofa)
“No. He’s not under the sofa.”
“Eyeore, where are you?”
“Are you in the cot?” and so on, finishing with “Here he is! He was in the toybox.” or wherever he happened to be.
3. Correcting without discouraging: It is important to correct mistakes in grammar, pronunciation and sentence structure. But it has to be done in a way that does not discourage the child from speaking. Be gentle. If for instance your child says “I goed upstairs”, you can repeat the meaning of sentence but correct it as you repeat it, for example “You went upstairs? And then what did you do?”. The child will realise you are listening to him and that he is making sense. He will feel encouraged to keep talking and should also pick up on the correction. You may find yourself repeatedly correcting the same mistakes, but eventually the child will begin to use the right words.
4. Reading and writing: Allow your child to get comforable with reading and writing in one language then introduce reading and writing in the second language. There is a huge difference between proficiency in speaking and in reading. You won’t do your child any favours by trying to get him to read and write in different languages at once. Letting the child reach a level they are comfortable with in reading one language makes it easier for them to start reading in the second language.
5. Don’t let your pride get in the way: Whether you are an expat trying to teach your child your own first language or you are introducing a foreign language to your child at pre-school age, you can be faced with competitive parents. Don’t give in to the pressure to compare skills or push your child to do better. Children learn at different rates. Some have an ear for languages, others are better at maths or sport. Let your child learn at their own rate. Be consistent and encouraging. Remember, praise works better than pressure.