A BILINGUAL CHILD
by Julia Gabriel
Helping Your Child Learn a Second Language
There was a time when educators believed that a second
language should be introduced in secondary school. Learning
a second, or third, language was considered a thing
for grown-ups to do. That time is long gone! Global
communication requires us to be educated in more than
one language and linguistic studies show that the ideal
time to learn a language is as early as possible, from
So what do I do, as a parent, to help my child on the
path to bilingualism - to enable him to become equally
comfortable and effective with two languages?
Can Your Child Be Effectively Bilingual?
Most recent research in the United States suggests children
can become equally effective in a second language. Further,
balanced bilinguals who are equally strong in two languages
tend to do better in I.Q. tests. They are thought to
benefit from having their thinking stretched, and awareness
Children should begin learning a second language as
early as possible. So says Colin Baker, professor of
bilingual education at the University of Wales and author
of An Encyclopaedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education.
We learn language best before the age of six so parents
should take advantage of these key language learning
years, from 0-6 years old. From birth a child's senses
are absorbing the sounds around him. His brain is storing
the complex patterns that make up language and his windows
of language are open wide to absorb it most easily.
After the age of six our ability to learn language decreases
as we get older, as anyone who has struggled to learn
a language as an adult will attest to!
Prof Baker believes that a child will not be confused
by two languages as long as the two are separated initially,
suggesting that parents and teachers use only one language
at a time. Recent research at Antwerp University shows
that two and three year-olds are able to understand
that they are using two distinct languages. At Julia
Gabriel Centre for Learning we recommend, where parents
are of different language groups, that each uses only
their own language with their child.
It is not unusual for children to become fluent in
a language other than their parents' through using it
at kindergarten or with friends. We have seen this happen
at our pre-school, Chiltern House. Because they want
to fit in, children are highly motivated to learn and
are much less likely than adults to forget vocabulary
and constructions learned outside the home.
Environment is Key
What are the ideal conditions in which to learn a language?
First of all we need motivation to learn. The best motivation
is the need to communicate in a language, for example
the desire to make needs known at home or to fit in
at school. Then we need interest. An interested child
will learn sub-consciously, without realising that he's
learning. Children learn to speak and read characters
through enjoyable activities and games that capture
interest as long as the content
and form hold attention. Young children have short attention
spans: An average of five minutes for two to three year-olds,
extending to ten minutes for three to four year-olds.
Activities must be varied and scheduling flexible in
order to capture and hold attention without pressure.
When children are excited and happy they learn most
easily. So it follows that a relaxed, fun-filled environment
is key. The final ingredient and the most important
link in the process of learning a language is the person
who models that language: The parent, the teacher, the
guide. The more creative the model, the more the child
will become imaginatively involved and learn subconsciously,
through play. In other words keep all talking, and exposure
to a second language, fun.
For language learning to be successful it is essential
that all exposure provides positive experience. There
is no room for destructive criticism or negative comments.
What the child needs is praise for effort, celebration
of success, joy and laughter. Don't worry if he makes
mistakes in grammar or pronunciation. Try to avoid correcting
negatively. Just repeat the sentence back to him accurately,
model it for him. In time he will automatically use
the right structure which the language-learning area
of his brain will have stored away for future use. For
Child: "Want go now park."
Adult Solution A: "That's not the right way to
ask. If you want to go to the park learn to ask properly.
Say it like this
Result A: Child feels wrong, gets bored repeating words,
loses interest in going to the park, loses confidence
in his ability to make his needs known. A learning opportunity
Adult Solution B: "You want to go to the Park
now? I want to go to the Park now, too. We'll go when
Result B: Child hears his sentence modelled correctly
and stores it away. His needs are acknowledged, he feels
good about the communication. Further language learning
opportunities will take place in the park.
The Foundation of Language is Musical
A baby absorbs the sounds of the language around him
long before he is able to speak. Because he is highly
sensitive to sound and aware of language patterns he
learns the rhythm and the tune of a language before
is able to learn the words and the structure. The beat
and the melody form the foundation levels of language
As parents and teachers we can build on this awareness
by sharing and enjoying songs and rhymes with our children.
Sing nursery rhymes, read verse, clap to the rhythm
and let the tune help your child to learn a first or
a second language.
Children need time, understanding and support from
their parents as they learn. We must recognise and reward
effort as well as achievement so that the motivation
to learn predicts success. If the learning process itself
is a joy, it will lead to a lifetime of enjoyable communication.
Tips for Parents
Do keep all feedback relaxed and positive.
Do stick, as far as possible, to one person one code.
Do provide a good talking model yourself.
Do repeat what your child says so that he hears it
"modelled" back to him.
Do provide daily exposure to both languages .
Do set all language in a meaningful context. Talk about
what your child can see or is doing .
Do encourage and praise all efforts.
Do spend time playing with your child and talk about
what you are doing together while you are doing it.
Do read books and stories to your child as early as
possible. He will absorb language long before he is
able to speak.
Do read your child stories in a first and second language
but stick to one language within one book.
Don't make your child repeat words or copy you: A meaningless
exercise, sure to kill interest.
Don't correct your child's pronunciation: Just repeat
the words back to him in the correct way.
Don't teach words out of context.
Don't mix languages within the same sentence. Repeat
the whole sentence in the other language.
Julia Gabriel and Jo Bristow
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