Becoming bilingual – fast facts and tips

I recently bought a short pamphlet from the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA), whose content I like to share with the families that come to my class, because it highlights in a concise way some important facts and tips.

How to become bilngual

Using two languages is like any other skill. To do it well, children need lots of practice, which families can help provide. Without practice, it may be difficult for children to understand or communicate with people in both languages. It can be hard to know how to teach your child to be bilingual. These facts can help:

Fact 1: There are lots of ways to become bilingual

Some people think that there is one best way to teach children to become bilingual. There is no one right way, but there are different ways preferred among the bilingual families:

  • One parent, one language. For example, Mom speaks Spanish and Dad speaks English. This is the system I personally think it works best for our situation, since Dad is not proficient in Spanish, although he tries his best using as many words in Spanish as he can. Anyway, and this unfortunately is not included in this pamphlet, the ideal way from my point of view would be by location. It works better when both parents can speak both languages and they choose the language to speak depending on the location. For example, they speak English outside home and Spanish when they are at home.
  • By time of day. For example, Spanish is spoken in the daytime, and English is spoken at night.
  • By activity. For example, Spanish is spoken at mealtimes, and English is spoken on the playground.

Another way to help a child learn a new language is to use only one language at home and let the child begin to learn the new one when she/he starts school.

ASHA enumerates different resources to help you teach your child two languages:

Books. Read to your child in both languages. Find the books you need at stores, at libraries, and on the Internet. I’m looking for them non stop to prepare the upcoming lessons, and I’m planning to include all my searches in this blog to make your task easier.

Computer programs or mobile apps. There are many interactive programs and apps that can help your child develop language skills. Initially I was reluctant to use apps and the computer at such a short age, but I have found out that a couple of minutes per day has very good results above all to train the ear in the distinction of the Spanish sounds.

Music. Singing is a great way to introduce a second language to your child, and it can be lots of fun!

Television programs and DVDs. Television programs and DVDs are available in many languages. There are different provides of satellite TV, like Dish, with a wide selection of channels from different countries.

Language groups. Children can learn to be bilingual at language camps, bilingual schools or in bilingual education programs. These groups give children the chance to use two languages with other children. I strongly believe this is the most important resource that can help your children to become bilingual. Language is all about communication, so if your children don’t have an environment where they can communicate in the secondary language, they will just not practice it. And as you know, you can easily forget a language if you don’t practice it.

Fact 2. Most children learn to communicate at about the same age and follow typical developmental patterns. This is true for children learning one, two, or more languages. 

Every bilingual child is unique. Developing skills in two languages depends on the quality and amount of experience the child has using both languages. Use languages that you feel comfortable using. Children learn best when they are provided with good models. That’s true, but it’s true too that monolingual parents can raise bilingual children. I will post more about it in the following weeks.

Fact 3. Learning two languages will not confuse your child

From time to time, children may mix grammar rules, or they might use words from both languages in the same sentence. This is a normal part of bilingual language development. I met once a 5 years old child whose father spoke to her in Catalonian and her mother in Spanish. The family lived in Rumania and enrolled her and her brother in the American International School of Bucarest, where her classes were mainly taken in English. Therefore, she was exposed since a very short age to four languages. One day she woke up and she started speaking in a mix of those four languages that nobody was able to understand. Obviously her parents were astonished and extremely worried. However, a couple of days later, she started speaking normal again, being able to answer and speak in each language without mixing all them up.

It is normal too that when a second language is introduced, some children may not talk very much for a while. This “silent period” can sometimes last several months. Again, this is normal.

Speaking more than one language does not cause a language disorder. Also, research shows that, with practice, children with disorders can learn more than one language.

Your child should be:

using words in the more familiar language (1-1.5 years old).

following simple directions (1-2 years old).

putting two or three words together (2-3 years old).

Every kid can speak more than one language. Even children with disabilities like the Down syndrome. The only difference is that he will need extra help from a speech-language-pathologist. If you are worried about your children’s language development, ASHA recommends you to contact a speech-language pathologist. For more information you can contact actioncenter@asha.org or visit their website: www.asha.org

 

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