The most common successful strategies to use at home for raising bilingual children

The most common successful strategies to use at home for raising bilingual children are:

  • One Parent One Language
  • Minority Language at Home
  • Time and Place
  • Mixed Language Influence

The best strategy for you and your children will depend on your personal circumstances and preferences.

Bilingual Strategy I: One Parent One Language

In this strategy, one of the parents always speaks to his child in one language, while the other speaks in a different language.  In this strategy, one parent can speak the minority language and the other the majority language, or both parents can speak a different minority language to the child. In the latter, the child is exposed to both languages plus the majority language or the language of the community or country where they live. You might wonder how the communication evolves when three languages are involved but it’s less difficult than what you might imagine. However it requires a lot of patience and consistence. Let’s see an example.

A mother who speaks Japanese and a father who speaks Spanish, while they both speak English and use English to communicate amongst each other:: The mother can speak Japanese and the father can speak Spanish directly to the child, yet when they are all together, they can speak in English. However, it is better for the child that the mother speaks exclusively in Japanese to him and the father speaks exclusively in Spanish to him.   For instance if the mother wants to say something to her child and to her spouse, then the ideal way to say it would be twice. Once to the child in Japanese, and once to her husband in English. In this way, you focus on teaching your child to separate the languages. He will soon differentiate “ the language of mom” as Japanese, and “the language of dad” as Spanish. It is proven that children accept this rule relatively well and they will put this into practice even better than their parents.

Bilingual Strategy II: Minority Language at Home

This strategy focuses on the practice of the minority language at home. In this case, parents encourage their children to speak the minority language within home by speaking it exclusively themselves. Then, every time they leave home, they switch and start speaking the majority language. In contrast to the One Parent One Language strategy, the children learn how to separate the language not by person but by place. In this case “outside home language” and “ inside home language”. Children seem very comfortable speaking two different languages to the same person but in two different contexts.  Clearly, this strategy will only work if both parents speak the minority language.

Bilingual Strategy III: Time and Place Distinction

This strategy is the most flexible of all, since parents can use it depending on the time and place. For instance, a family might decide to use the minority language at home and they switch to the majority language over the weekends. Or maybe the parents implement the “one parent one language” strategy over the weekdays and then switch to the minority language over the weekends to insist more on the minority language. Others might prefer to use the minority language exclusively at home and then use the majority language every time they step out.

This is the preferred strategy among multicultural families that spend time in different countries. It consists of switching the language depending on the environment where the family is in. For instance, a family of Chinese residents in the United States that usually speaks Chinese to their children might find it useful to speak only English when they travel to China for a reasonable period of time. This may not seem intuitive, but by switching in this manner,  you will be preventing the child from forgetting his/her fluency in English and you will add flexibility to the language strategy.

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Thisis the most common strategy put in place in bilingual programs at school too. In those programs, teachers speak one language or the other one depending on the day. For instance, they might use French on Monday, Wednesday and Friday while using English on Tuesday and Thursday. Or they might speak just French in the mornings and English in the afternoons. They can focus even more on the separation between languages by changing the class. For instance, children may be assigned to the first floor in the mornings where they speak only French and in the afternoon they could assigned to a class on the second floor where they speak only English.

While it may seem odd to change classrooms just to speak a different language, there is significant science behind these approaches.  Psychologists have known for some time that human memory is enhanced by context specific events.  This means that by changing the environment and the context each time the class changes language, children are more easily able to absorb and remember the different langauges.

Mixed Language Influence

This is not a strategy itself. It consists on speaking one or other language depending on daily situations. For instance, parents might use Spanish to speak at dinner and then switch to English to speak about homework. Sometimes it is even more pronounced by alternating words from both languages in the same sentence. I have noticed that this kind of system is broadly used among the Spanish communities living in United States. The extreme use of the Mixed Language Strategy is when people are not able to separate both languages and they tend to mix them creating a new language in the process. The most famous case in the United States, without any doubt, is the development of “Spanglish” which is commonly spoken by Puerto Ricans in the United States. An example that just popped in my mind is the sentence “ El rufo está liqueando”, which is Spanglish. It’s a transformation of the English sentence “The roof is leaking” and the Spanish sentence (of the same meaning): “El techo esta goteando.”

For reasons which may be evident based on the example above,, this is a system that it is not recommended to follow for parents who want to raise their children bilingually because children will have trouble differentiating which language is which, and as a result, may mix parts of both languages without mastering either.

The bottom line of all these strategies is to apply them consistently. If you apply them loosely, your children might not listen to you when you put them into practice. Sometimes, children may apply these strategies in a more effective way than their parents, who might be forgetful or lazy about putting them into practice every day. Emphasize the separations between both languages because it is very important to teach the child the differences between them.

That said, don’t stress yourself out if you occasionally don’t follow your strategy.  Teaching your child a language which is important to you is an extremely powerful way to ensure the child understands where he or she comes from, and it will provide powerful tools for the child’s future. Parents can switch between strategies depending on changes in the environment. If something different occurs in your environment (moving to another country, monolingual family visiting, etc.) be flexible about which strategy to use. The most important issue is which language you want to emphasize more.

In my case, I´m living in an environment which is predominantly English, so I´m trying my best to expose my child to Spanish. That means that I speak exclusively to her in Spanish, I try to spend as much time as I can with only Spanish speakers, I read exclusively in Spanish to her, I only listen to Spanish songs when my child is around and I only let her watch Spanish cartoons.

The key is being persistent with you chosen strategy, make distinction between both languages, and be flexible depending on the changes in the environment.  Every family is different and each family should use the strategy that best suits its special circumstances.

 

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Our role as parents, our role as educators

Unfortunately there are not too many studies about bilingualism yet but researchers agree that the strategies for promoting monolingual children’s language development can be applied successfully to bilingual children.  Below are some tips which studies have proven work for developing language. While you may find some of these tips pretty obvious, I hope you can find useful and new information too.

The more exposure to a second (or third) language, the better.

Decades of research with monolingual children and more recent research with multilingual children have found out that the more exposure the child has had to the language, the better. These studies indicate that the amount of exposure to each language predicts a child’s levels of vocabulary and grammatical development in each language.

The earlier a child is exposed to a second language, the better.

Existing research states that the earlier you introduce your child to the language, the better language outcome he will get. We spoke about quantity before, but high quality exposure gives even better results.

Particularly for children under 18 months, children are more favorable to language learning when we use it as a response to the child’s behavior, attention or verbalization.

With 2 and 3 years old, beneficial language experience takes the form of conversations in which parents or fathers ask their children questions and there are numerous conversational exchanges.

In fact, Children who are exposed to high quality input in two languages before the age of 3 years (and continue to be exposed to both languages over time) outperform others who are first exposed after age 3 in reading, phonological awareness, and competence in both languages. Children who hear two languages from infancy start to learn both languages simultaneously, and the course of development in each language looks very much like the trajectory followed by monolingual children.

Content of parent talk

Additionally, it is not just speaking the language that is important; the content of spoken interactions between parents and children is also extremely important to develop language skills.   If the discussion gets a response from the child,the child is learning more. If we speak about something the child is looking at, the child will be more prone to learn because he will be interested. However children will learn fewer words if parents redirect children’s attention and label objects not of their interest.

Diversity of parental speech

The richer and more diverse the parental speech is, the better the children’s vocabulary development will become. The richness of vocabulary, grammatical and lexical structures is associated with children’s vocabulary size, rate of vocabulary growth, and communicative diversity, phonological awareness, listening comprehension and cognitive skills.

Speaking about past experiences

Parents who talk at length with their children regarding past experiences have children with better vocabulary, story comprehension and narrative skills. This is a very good and easy exercise. Ask questions to your children about past events and encourage them to explain who was there, what objects were involved, what happened, how one thing led to another and why people behaved as they did.

Take dictations

One easy way to significantly raise your child’s vocabulary is taking dictations of children’s oral narratives. It is proven to improve the spelling and the reading comprehension too. . Take a tale that your child likes and do a couple of minutes of dictation every day.

Positive tone

Positive tone is also important. Not only because a negative tone discourages the child, but because the grammatical construction itself. Negative language is typically less rich because it is focused on very few specific words. Furthermore, commands don’t invite a conversation. There is a big different between “Where would you like to go?” and “Let’s go”.

Teaching vocabulary in context

Teaching vocabulary in context also enriches and deepens the child’s background knowledge and hence his or her vocabulary.

A mother that speaks about tools, seasons, plants, insects, and seeds while gardening is providing vocabulary in an appropriate context and therefore, helping her child to acquire a better extensive and connected vocabulary and assimilation of concepts. Do you like to have walks? Bring your child and explain to him/her what you see. Even a visit to the supermarket can enrich the children´s vocabulary with the right interaction.

Reading books

Everyone knows that reading is important, but reading books in particular has numerous advantages. It develops oral language, growth of vocabulary and narrative skills, concepts and knowledge, articulation, phonological awareness, and early forms of writing such as scribbles and drawings. Reading books helps parents to use a more diverse vocabulary and invites conversations around the stories and content of the books.

The last report from the National Early Literacy Panel (2008) presents research and recommendations for early childhood educators for promoting foundational literacy skills. The report identifies the types of early literacy intervention that promote children’s early literacy skills. Their findings support the importance of alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, rapid auto-naming of letters or digits, rapid auto-naming of objects or colors, writing one’s name, and phonological memory as predictive skills for literacy development. An additional five early literacy skills were also identified as potentially important variables, including concepts of print, print knowledge, reading readiness (e.g., alphabet knowledge), oral language skills, and visual processing. Engagement in literacy activities such as book reading promotes all these literacy skills.

The importance of a community

Having a community that reinforces the use of the second language is paramount to the development and the acquisition of second language. Hearing substantial language input from multiple speakers of any given language is more supportive of language development than hearing it from fewer speakers.

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The importance of having bilingual programs available:

In the United States, it is a common pattern for toddlers to become increasingly English-dominant in their language skills during the preschool years, while growth in the secondary language decelerates. However, studies have documented that this doesn’t happen when both languages, the majority and the secondary language receive continual support. If you have the opportunity to enroll your child in a bilingual program, do not hesitate to do it. Many people have the wrong assumption that learning a secondary language negatively affects the language acquisition of the primary language, but studies indicate that children in environments where the dual language input is maintained perform at the same level as monolingual children in both languages by the age of 10 years. And researchers point out that bilingual programs have other important advantages too. Access to multilingual programming can assist children in their language and literacy development by facilitating the integration of component skills such as grammatical knowledge or vocabulary knowledge. Furthermore, this development can contribute to the development of parallel skills in a second or third language because children improve their ability to assimilate concepts. Even adults who can speak two languages find it easier to learn a third language because they have trained their brain for acquiring such a skill.

Why are some bilingual parents able to raise bilingual children while others do not succeed?

I used to have the assumption that every person raised in a bilingual family would become naturally bilingual. But that is not true. During all these years I have lived in the United States, the country of multiculturalism par excellence, I have come across many people whose parents and grandparents spoke to them in their native language. To my surprise, I only met some that can speak both languages (English and their families’ native language) perfectly. Most of them can only speak a few words and/or understand their native language!

Looking around for a study that could give me some insight into this phenomenon, I found one by the University of Miami Bilingualism Study Group (BSG). In their study, researchers recruited 25 babies in bilingual families and followed their progress until age 3.  Over the years, they observed all the babies learning words and phrases in both English and Spanish, but by the age of 3 years, several of them had stopped using Spanish. They were not comfortable enough in the second language to answer their parents or the researchers in that language, much less initiate an interaction in Spanish themselves.

We know that children easily pick up the majority language, even if their parents cannot speak it. We know that children have an amazing ability to learn languages.  Yet why is it that some children raised in bilingual families learn both languages, while others do not? What create these different outcomes? What are the key factors that help establish bilingualism in children?

Barbara Zurer Pearson, from the Department of Linguistics, University of Massachusetts published a study that seeks to answer these questions. She explained the phenomenon through five key factors: input, language status, access to literacy, family language use, and community support.

INPUT

Input means the quantity of minority language that is available in the children’s entourage. It is obvious that the more input, the more learning, and consequently the more proficiency. If children feel comfortable using the language, they will invite more input so they will learn more and they will become more proficient. Attitudes of parents, siblings, and peers are very important to create input. If they share negative attitudes towards a language, they will be subtracting input, which will lead to less enthusiasm for using the language, attract less input, and decrease learning and proficiency. Therefore, if we, as parents, want to raise a bilingual child, we have to promote the minority language and facilitate its use around the child.

LANGUAGE STATUS

In general, children need a greater percentage of exposure to the minority language than in the majority language, and the reason is simple. We are immersed in the majority language. All our environment is in English; television, school,  advertisements, friends, and just about everything else. Sometimes it’s even difficult to use the minority language in public with your child because you don’t want to show disrespect to the monolinguals involved in the conversation.

Further, the natural attraction of the majority language for the child is very powerful. According to the same study, it is more likely that bilingual children sharing the same minority language will speak English or the majority language between themselves in private unregulated conversations. For instance, one of my colleagues of work has two girls of 4 and 7 years old. When they are in class, they speak Spanish. However, English is their language of preference when they are playing in the school’s playground.

LANGUAGE FACTORS

Written materials in a language, whether in children’s literature or mass media, can extend input even in the absence of many language speakers. For slightly older children, reading is an important consolidator of their language skills, and contributes to both greater proficiency and retention of a language. In fact, reading skills transfer from one language to another and according to “Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children” (LLBC; Cobo-Lewis, Eilers, Pearson, & Umbel, 2002), children who learned to read in both English and Spanish scored significantly higher in reading in English as well as Spanish.

family's role in bilingualism

FAMILY FACTORS

It is essential that the family provides enough minority language interaction to support learning it. In fact, there is a theory called “the three-generation rules” that suggests that the first generation (typically emigrants who came to United States) are somewhat bilingual, but they remain strongly dominant in their native language. Their children, the second generation, are fluently bilingual, and their grandchildren, the third generation, will be monolingual in the majority language and will only speak and understand a few words in the heritage language.

It is crucial to have contact with monolingual speakers of the minority language. In families where both parents speak the minority language at home, and especially if their ability to speak English is limited, it will almost always be sufficient interaction in that language to support minority language learning. These are these cases where the children act as “interpreters” of their parents. It is not uncommon to see a woman in a store and asking her child to interpreter between her and the shop clerk.

However, with only one speaker of the minority language, or two fluently bilingual parents, the language environment of the home is more uncertain, and is less likely, on its own, to provide a bilingual learner with enough input.

COMMUNITY FACTORS

A connected and united community of minority language speakers can really motivate our children to use that language. We can see many of these communities throughout United States: the Hispanic enclaves in Florida, Japantown in San Francisco or Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, the Polish and Czech communities of South Broadway (Cleveland), Chinatown in New York City…we all know of that part of the city or area where there is a predominance of emigrants from a specific part of the world. It is not uncommon to find people living in those areas who have never had the need to speak English because these communities provide minority language speakers with an economy and services where they can  interact and live using their native language. Children living in these enclaves are exposed to the majority language at school but are otherwise immersed in the minority language.

However, there are some areas of the country populated predominantly with American born individuals which still attract foreigners. Those newcomers normally get integrated easier into the American society but they find it very difficult to pass on their cultural and language heritage to their children due to the lack of community exposure. Yet, they can still create a social community in order to stablish a context to maintain the minority language and culture. A key element of community support provided to a minority language is through education. We should have dual language education programs available to make sure that our children are learning both languages at an academic level.

The study conducted among the Latin community in Miami found that despite their economic and political power, these communities have almost no schools that offer bilingual programs. Furthermore, it concludes that Spanish is being lost in Miami even faster than the three-generation rule would predict, mainly because the community does not seem to recognize the level of threat to the minority language. Every indication points out that children learn the minority language when parents make a conscious effort to expose the language to them. However, if parents don’t make the effort, the majority language will take over.  In other words, while children have a unique natural ability to learn multiple languages, the process is not magic; it takes time, repetition, and focus to nurture bilingualism in children.

The full study can be found in the following link: http://www.umass.edu/aae/Pearson_social_circumstances_APPsycholing2007.pdf

 

 

Can the learning of a second language interfere in the learning process of my child’s first language?

Several parents have expressed concerns about their children learning a second language. They think that learning a second language at a very young age can affect their children learning skills and get a poor first language acquisition. This is a very common misbelief. Learning a second language (or third), does not interfere in the child’s ability to learn his main language.

It is common that children exposed to more than one language from a very short age tend to mix words and sentences from different languages. This is a normal and temporary situation, until the child understands the differences between the languages he or she can speak. However the sounds of the first language can influence how children learn and use a second language because children who are learning more than one language are likely using similar patterns of learning.  It is obviously easier to learn sounds and words when the languages they are learning are similar, but this shouldn’t be a drawback for learning languages that are not alike. Children have a natural ability to learn and improve their language skills, and when starting a young age, children will learn how make the more difficult sounds and words of any language.

While adults think consciously about which language they are going to speak and select carefully the words they are going to use, children just think about communication. Children don’t think about using one word from this language or that word from another language. What they want to do is let the people know what they want. It doesn’t matter the means to them (crying, pointing out, or mixing words from different languages), but the result, that is, sending the message. This is one of the reasons why children have a better ability to learn languages than adults.

According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), if a child has a speech or language problem, it will show up in both languages. However, these problems are not caused by learning two languages. If you know a child who is learning a second language and you have concerns about speech and language development, ASHA recommends contacting a bilingual speech-language pathologist (SLP). If you are unable to find a bilingual speech-language pathologist, look for a SLP who has knows the rules and structure of both languages and who has access to an interpreter. For more information or for a referral to a SLP, contact ASHA at 800-638-TALK (8255) (Spanish-speaking operators available)