We’ve all heard the adage “hindsight is 20/20.” Looking back on the early days of when we first set out on our family language-learning journey reveals to me how important it is to change things up and to remain flexible with how we approach the process. It’s sometimes easy to forget during rough patches, but I have learned that having fun with the kids as they learn is more important than concrete measurements like how many phonetic symbols they know or exactly how many lessons we have gone through for the week. Below I lay out five tips for you to start or perhaps improve your personal language acquisition journey with your own children.
1. Start early and don’t worry
Research has shown that young children’s brains are hard-wired for language acquisition. If you know a language other than English (or the particular community language you are surrounded by) start speaking that language with your child right away. I spoke both Mandarin Chinese and English to my son when he was a baby. Since my husband was also speaking English to him that meant that he didn’t hear as much Chinese as he could have. I changed things up when my daughter came along and spoke to her almost exclusively in Chinese. There was a clear difference in their resulting fluency and it took some time for me to bring my son up to my daughter’s level as a result.
Don’t worry that your children’s English ability will be negatively affected. It won’t. They can handle even more. Both my son and daughter were exposed to a third language before they could even walk. My son was exposed to Russian, so at the time we had English, Chinese, and Russian at home, and he was able to respond to questions in Russian and identify objects. Several years later when our daughter came along she was exposed to daily French at her daycare. She wasn’t even speaking English when she joined the part-time English/French bilingual playschool but two months after she started the program she got up one morning and said “Bonjour!” to me! Young children have such amazing learning abilities. Test your child’s out and see.
2. Learn on the go
Prepare a good selection of audio programs for the car (or commute) and rotate them. I have two CD cases in our car – one for Chinese and the other for English and other languages. We frequently listen to Chinese songs, stories, and tongue twisters on the way to school or home. When the kids were toddlers it was a great way to entertain them. They were a “captive audience” in the car anyway and it gave them something constructive to focus on. They listened to the songs and stories and wiggled and giggled in their seats. Video is not needed. Listening in the car is a fun way to learn and it is good for their imagination since there are no visual images.
3. Find (or create) group learning opportunities
Take learning beyond the home. It is wonderful if you have a playgroup in your target language or if your child can attend an immersion school. Since I was not able to locate any in my area I decided to bring Mandarin Chinese language and Chinese culture to my children’s classrooms myself. I first started doing a Chinese New Year culture presentation when my son was in preschool. Then I brought a Mandarin Chinese language program to my daughter’s preschool and later to both of their elementary school classes. I currently go to school once a week and teach my daughter’s entire grade level Mandarin Chinese. I was very lucky to have the support of the schools and teachers to bring my program to them. It inspires my kids when other children are so excited about learning Mandarin Chinese and Chinese culture. It also doesn’t hurt that my son thinks it’s cool that his mother is “famous” because of her Chinese classes (it makes him proud and inspires him to learn more).
4. Keep it real
Give your children real-world opportunities to use their language skills. Set up a time to talk to grandparents and relatives who speak the target language either face-to-face or via the phone, Skype, Facetime, in Google hangouts or other creative ways. Participate in cultural events in the target culture and language when they are available. Visit an ethnic supermarket, grocery store, shop, or restaurant to experience the culture and the use the language firsthand. Visiting a language school or program to meet children who are also learning the same language can also inspire your children. Try reading in your target language to your child every day – when children can later read in the target language on their own they will feel a closer connection with the language.
5. Be like water…
We’ve all seen what flowing water does when it runs into an obstacle. It always tends finds a way around it. If your children’s language learning seems to have hit a standstill or they begin to rebel because it is not fun don’t feel restricted to one technique or another. Change things up when language learning seems to get stale or your child isn’t having fun. When my children were little and spent most of their time with me the One Parent-One Language approach worked fine. Then we started to go to playgroups, play dates and school and the community language (English) played an increasingly important role in their lives. It was associated with fun time and friends and Chinese was in danger of being associated with homework and chores – something you didn’t want to do but had to do. One thing I have learned is to be flexible with our target language approach. We need to individualize our strategy with our children and our family and our circumstances. When we are on a plateau or on a hill let’s go to the park, take a walk, or jump in the pool to recharge. Find a way to associate the language learning with fun. Watch a movie or play a game in the target language. Don’t forget to pause and enjoy the scenery on this journey and appreciate what our children and we have accomplished at this time. We need to remember this is a trip of discovery for the kids and for us.
Stay tuned for more stories and tips from parents who are raising bilingual/multilingual kids. Always keep learning fun!
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Amanda “Miss Panda” is the founder of Miss Panda Chinese and author of the "Let's Learn Mandarin Chinese with Miss Panda!" CD/MP3 audio program. Amanda is a dynamic language instructor with over 15 years language teaching experience. She created Miss Panda Chinese to share teaching materials that she has developed and used in the classroom and at home with parents and teachers who are also on the exciting bilingual education journey.
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