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Raising bilingual kids: early exposure

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By Ray Robertson

There’s only one hard and-fast rule to raising a bilingual child – if you want him to speak two languages with the proficiency of a native, you need to expose him to the two languages early, ideally from birth.

Consider what we mean when we talk about someone’s ‘mother tongue.’ It’s the language the mother speaks to the child when he’s in the cradle. It’s the first language the child hears or speaks, and it follows that it’s generally the language he is most comfortable speaking in later life.

Most toddlers can say about 20 words by 18 months and 50 or more words by the time they turn 2. By age 2, kids are starting to combine two words to make simple sentences, such as ‘dog barking’ or ‘Daddy strong.’ By age 3, children have words for almost everything they want to say. And by age 4, they’re talking in sentences using five or more words, though the size of their vocabulary will vary widely.

In setting out to raise a bilingual child, what you want is for him to have two mother tongues. Later in life, you may find he uses one language more than the other, or prefers one language over the other but, given sufficient exposure as he matures, he will always be fluent in the languages he mastered as a baby.

Exposure to two languages

To encourage language development, paediatricians tell you to talk to your child as much as possible, to read to him and sing to him. For bilingual development, children need this type of constant exposure to both languages. Ideally too, they’ll be introduced to each language by a native speaker. It almost goes without saying that if you speak to your child in your native English, he’ll grow up speaking English like a native; his speech patterns will be rich and idiomatic and he’ll have your accent.

It’s important to note that while older kids can learn vocabulary from educational screen-time, young children need direct person-to-person contact in order to learn a language.

So how do you give your child this level of exposure to two languages? You might decide that you and your spouse will each speak a different language (your own native language) to your child,or you may agree to both speak two languages to your child.

Regardless of the method you choose, you’ll find that your child is able to differentiate between the two languages right from birth. He may mix the languages from time to time, but this doesn’t mean he’s confused. Rather, it’s a sign of linguistic ability. If you think about it, adult bilinguals mix their languages all the time. They may do this on purpose because they prefer the word or phrase in the other language, or they may be forced to do so because they don’t know the word they need in the language they’re speaking. If mixing languages is the norm at home, you can expect your child to do as you and your spouse do.

It does take longer to acquire two languages than one, so don’t be surprised if your bilingual baby starts speaking a little later than his monolingual peers. It’s only natural. What’s more, a child who is learning two languages (say English and Mandarin) may have a smaller vocabulary in each than a child who is only learning one; there are only so many hours in the day, and he’s either hearing English or Mandarin.

Boosting bilingualism

It’s clear that raising a bilingual child takes a tremendous amount of parental input but it’s important to look outside your immediate family for support.

One obvious way to boost your child’s bilingualism is to encourage him to speak both languages socially. The more native language speakers he knows, and the more fun, interesting conversations he has with them, the more comfortable he will be with the language and the culture. If yours is an English/ Korean household, invite Korean friends over for supper and speak Korean with them, do the same with English friends. Time spent with both sides of the family, with cousins and grandparents, is also invaluable even if that involves a trip overseas.

In Hong Kong, of course, kids who are learning English and Cantonese are at an advantage since they hear these languages being spoken all around them on a daily basis.

Employing a helper, who’s fluent in one of the languages your child is learning, is a sure-fire way to boost his proficiency. Again, it’s about giving him as much exposure to a language as possible, from as young an age as possible. Quality one-on one time, spent playing, let’s say with a Spanish nanny, will allow your child to focus on his Spanish while having fun.

Literacy in a language is important because it increases both vocabulary size and grammatical understanding, so you need to be mindful that your child learns to read and write in both languages. Again, the younger literacy is achieved the better – wait until he is older, even at junior school, where he’s learning 101 new things, and your child may feel overwhelmed.

Of course, the choices you make about your child’s schooling will also impact his bilingualism. There are many schools here in Hong Kong where language learning is a priority – the aim is that students are all bilingual or trilingual at the end of their studies. For the most part, rather than having him taught in two languages at the same time, you choose a language stream for your child. For instance, at the French International School, the French Stream follows the French National Curriculum to Brevet and French Baccalaureate. The International Stream follows the English Curriculum to IGCSE, then International Baccalaureate.

Within this type of system, children get to focus on one language for their academic studies, while having the opportunity to speak another language with students in the parallel stream outside of class.

Send your child to a school where only one language is spoken (either English or Cantonese here in Hong Kong), and it’s likely that English or Cantonese will become his go-to language. But this needn’t mean all your hard work has been wasted. Continue to speak both languages he learnt as a baby when you’re together as a family, and he’ll still be your bilingual (or even trilingual) boy.

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Comment(s) on - Raising bilingual kids: early exposure

  • Tanya singh Reply

    Very good article quite relatable as my kids are also bilingual indian languages

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