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How To Help Your Kids Learn To Speak Multiple Languages

With enough exposure, children are capable of learning multiple languages.
With enough exposure, children are capable of learning multiple languages.

With enough exposure, children are capable of learning multiple languages.

Knowing another language opens doors for kids and adults alike. But most educators agree that childhood is the ideal time for language learning. While their brains don’t actually work like sponges and it doesn’t happen overnight, kids are more capable than grown-ups of picking up a second language and perfecting a native accent.

Whether you want to share your own mother tongue and heritage, give your kid a cognitive boost or prepare them for future study, travel and work opportunities, you will need to provide them with lots of exposure to the language and authentic speaking practice.

Two strategies families often utilize are “one parent, one language,” where each parent consistently speaks one language with a child (i.e., Mom speaks English, Dad speaks Spanish), and “minority language at home,” where the family uses the less-spoken language at home and children learn the “majority” language at school and in the community. Other families use a mix of strategies to expose their kids to both languages, or they take on the task of learning a second language alongside their children.

Depending on your home situation, this can require a lot of planning, effort and persistence on your part. It can be tempting to give up, especially when you don’t feel like you’re seeing much progress.

Gabrielle Kotkov is a Montessori educator with certification in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) who works as a consultant with families and schools around language learning. She encourages families to be patient and to have realistic expectations.

“It’s a long process,” she told HuffPost. “Language learning generally takes five to eight years to become fluent.” And even when fluency is achieved, regular practice is essential in order to hold on to the language.

“Even if you don’t see the same amount of progress each week, progress is not linear, and it might not always look the same, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t working,” said Kotkov.

She added that parents shouldn’t let their idea of perfection get in the way. “I think a lot of people put pressure on themselves that, ‘If I can’t do perfect bilingualism — whatever that means — it’s not worth it.’ And I really, really firmly believe that any amount of language exposure is valuable,” Kotkov said.

Children can cultivate meaningful relationships with others even if their language isn’t fluent, and simply knowing that there are many languages that people use to communicate is valuable for a child to understand.

Be flexible and use the method that works best for your family.

Elizabeth Silva Díaz is a faculty member at Bank Street College of Education and a former teacher of bilingual special education. Born in Colombia, she is raising her son to be bilingual so that he can communicate with his grandparents and other Spanish-speaking relatives.

“When my son was first born, we decided to try the one-parent-one-language approach, but quickly found that this was not the communication style that worked for our family,” Silva Díaz told HuffPost.

“I found that as soon as I started talking to my husband in English that I would forget to speak to my son in Spanish. Instead, we use a situation and context approach to bilingualism,” she said, explaining that they use Spanish with the Spanish-speaking side of their family and English with the English-speaking side. Her son is now in a bilingual preschool, and switches back and forth between languages there as well.

“Our bilingualism is dynamic and changes based on the context,” said Silva Díaz.

Don’t worry that introducing two languages will impede your child’s learning.

Grace Bernales is a licensed speech-language pathologist in California. She says that parents often ask her whether using two (or more) languages with a child will cause a speech delay.

“This is one of the most common myths,” Bernales told HuffPost. “Teaching more than one language does not cause a speech delay.”

In the beginning, your child will probably mix languages together when speaking.

“Children who are learning to be bilingual/multilingual may say words incorrectly or in error, and/or may combine a sentence using both languages. This is due to languages influencing each other, and not necessarily a concern,” said Bernales. Your child’s teachers or pediatrician can help you determine if a speech evaluation would be a good idea for your child, but there is nothing about bilingualism that makes your child more likely to need assistance.

In generations past, immigrant families were often told not to use their language at home because it would interfere with their children’s learning of English, but we know now that this is not true. Children transfer their knowledge in one language over to another, and are capable of learning more than one language at a time.

Mixing languages is “a natural part of their learning,” said Silva Díaz. “Language learning is not a process of simply adding a ‘second language’ onto a ‘native language,’ but rather it is a fluid process where the languages influence and interact with each other.”

It’s also not necessary to correct your child when they make mistakes — which they will, in both languages. It’s a natural part of the learning process. If your child says, for example, “I go-ed to the park,” you don’t need to make them say it again using “went.” They will hear you using “went” correctly as you speak to them, and sort out this irregular verb for themselves without any outside interference.

Provide authentic opportunities for speaking practice.

Silva Díaz advises parents to “create opportunities for your child to engage with the various languages in everyday situations that are meaningful and authentic.”

Travel is one way to provide your child with these opportunities. “Exposure to the language in its authentic context can significantly boost a child’s interest in and understanding of the language,” said Silva Díaz.

But time abroad is not a requirement. Authentic interactions can also take place with relatives or neighbors who speak the language. Silva Díaznotes that her son uses Spanish when playing with his Spanish-speaking cousins, for example. Children are particularly motivated to use a language when doing so provides opportunities for peer interaction and play.

Note that your child will catch on very quickly to who understands which language. If you are the Chinese-speaking parent, but your child knows that you understand English, they may persist in speaking to you in English if that is their dominant language and it is easier for them.

This may make you feel like what you’re doing isn’t working, but Kotkov encourages families to “stay strong and speak the minority language because they’re still absorbing it and they’re still grasping it.”

If authentic practice is hard to come by, you might try introducing small doses of speaking practice.

Kotkov suggests taking a low-stakes approach, using the language just at bath time, or setting a timer for 10 minutes and trying to speak just that language. Gradually, you can increase the amount of time you’re speaking to a half hour. “Elementary school-aged children really get excited about that structure and timing,” she said.

There is no need to demand that your child use one language with certain people or in certain contexts. “Bilingual children naturally navigate between languages based on their linguistic environments and the people they interact with. Forcing them to respond in a specific language can disrupt their natural language development,” said Silva Díaz.

Utilize all of the resources at hand.

While having a back-and-forth conversation with a native speaker is the most effective learning scenario, there are lots of other ways for kids to pick up vocabulary and improve their comprehension.

Introduce TV, movies, music and books in both languages to your child.

“Watching a favorite show or reading a favorite book in the non-dominant language can make language learning enjoyable and relevant,” said Silva Díaz. “We have switched the language on our Netflix to Spanish and all of the cartoons that my son watches are now in Spanish. This provides another opportunity for him to be genuinely surrounded by Spanish in a fun context.”

Kotkov said she knows a mom and daughter who enjoy watching “Master Chef Mexico Junior” together. It’s an opportunity for the daughter to be exposed to Spanish, and it also helps her mom stay connected to the language that young people in Mexico are using today even though they are not living there right now.

Books can be used in a way that is developmentally appropriate for your child.

“No need to read the entire book if you have a younger toddler who loses interest early on. Instead, make it come to life by adding sounds to cars and animals, pretending to eat the food, as well as labeling the pictures in both languages,” said Bernales.

If your child can read and write, labeling different items around the house together (refrigerator, window, etc.) can also be a fun activity.

You may be able to find playgroups in your area, or online, that provide other opportunities to expose your child to the language.

“You might still have the parents speaking in the minority language and the children speaking to each other in the majority language, but the children are still observing the parents using it with each other and I think that’s important for them to observe adults using it in a social context,” said Kotkov.

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find classes, preschools and dual language schools that teach in the language you want your children to learn. Government-sponsored institutions like the Alliance Française and Instituto Cervantes also provide a variety of enrichment activities.

Understand that bilingualism is a spectrum.

Keep in mind that language learning is a process that your child will continue for their entire life.

“Bilingualism exists on a continuum, and individuals can have different levels of proficiency and dominance in each language,” said Silva Díaz.

It’s natural that one language will dominate at certain times or in certain situations, and there may be periods where your child understands the minority language but continues to speak to you in the majority one.

While you can always change your family’s language learning plan if the path that you’re on isn’t working, Kotkov recommends that you not get “too discouraged when things aren’t happening as quickly as you might expect. Know that there’s a lot happening under the surface.”

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