Recently my husband and I met new friends. Karen is German, Andrew is English, and their son was born here in the UK. The little one is monolingual and speaks English only because Karen has been living in the UK since she was six and feels more comfortable speaking English than German.
We’re having a pleasant conversation, asking casual questions and talking about the weather (I’m joking, I hate talking about the weather), and then this inevitable topic emerges – bilingual kids. “Oh, but it’s obvious that parents teach their children the community language. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t”, Andrew is speaking with this absolute confidence, mentioning a few names of the foreign couples both of them know. I nod politely. Are all of us certain though that we are speaking about the same?
According to NALDIC (National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum) bilingualism, that is the ability to speak two different languages, can have various forms. It ranges from a minimal proficiency in both languages to an advanced level, where a person can function simultaneously as a native speaker of two languages. How we define bilingualism then, depends mainly on the person speaking. This is why to me bilingualism is when you have acquired two languages at the same time and on the same level. Based on that I am not bilingual (my English language command is not as good as Polish), but my five-year-old’s is because he has been raised from the start with two languages that functioned on equal levels.
Trying to teach your child a few words in a foreign language doesn’t equal with making them proficient bilingual speakers. It proves that you are a thoughtful parent, that you think about your child’s future, and you want him or her to feel comfortable and be able to communicate when they meet people outside your house. However, to make a natural native speaker in two languages is more than to teach him how to say “hello”, “how are you”, “thank you”, or “I need a wee”. It’s just right for the start, and it’s something that will give your child more confidence and better preparation for an acquisition of the other language. You can then keep doing this but at the same time bear in mind that you can do much more. I’ll tell you why it’s worth it.
Even though scientists still cannot fully agree on the period when ends the ability to acquire two languages at the same time and with the same proficiency, countless scientific studies set the best time to learn the native-like language up until the age of three.
Some researchers call it a “critical period”, others describe it as “ideal,” “best” or “advantageous” but they all agree on one thing: this is when it’s the easiest for a child to learn. Not only to learn the language but to learn anything at all. You can think of your kids as super-humans, who get down to our, grown-up, level only when they are five up to six years old. Still, the definition of a “first language” (also called native language, mother tongue, or L1) leaves little doubt because it is defined as the language a person has learnt from birth or within the critical period (up to 3 years).
Whatever language we learn in a further stage of our lives it will always be our second language. Why then leave introducing your child to the community language for later when you can do it by yourself much sooner?
STATISTICS NOBODY TALKS ABOUT
Research studies prove that children who start learning their second language after the critical period become conversationally fluent in two or three years after they are immersed in a new language. You might think it’s no big deal, those two years. Well, would you repeat the same if you thought of your five-year-old, who’s just started school and will need nearly half of their lifetime more to be able to express themselves and communicate fluently with others?
Did you also think that if your child isn’t bilingual from birth, he or she will need at school more time than his monolingual peers to catch up in academic language? According to Prof. J. Cummins, a world authority on bilingual education this may take from five to seven years. For a five-year-old, this is more than double his life just to be able to understand and use the knowledge they gain at school because it requires proficiency in the language to be able to transfer what they learn in the classroom into their mother tongue.
Many people will say “Children can deal with it. It’s not a problem”. Well, indeed they can, most of them, anyway. They have no other choice, after all. But what’s the price they will they need to pay?
Do we as parents have a moral right to put such responsibility and emotional challenges on those little shoulders? I asked this question myself before my son was born. If you’re reading my blog, you already know my answer.
WHY BABIES ARE CLEVERER THAN YOU
Or me, for instance. Language learning is a natural process when a child is young. Thanks to modern technology in neuroscience today we can better understand how languages develop. Studies show that a baby’s brain by eight months of life has about 1000 trillion connections. After that, the number of connections begins to decline, unless the child is exposed to stimulation. Let me repeat: unless the child is exposed to stimulation. What it means for you are endless opportunities for you as a parent. Just use them. Play, talk, talk, play, sing, talk, and you will be amazed by the results.
Certainly, there is no definition of a ‘late introduction’ of another language, and it’s always better late than never. Babies are natural learners, so for them to pick up a new ability is the easiest thing in the world. During the first eight months of life, babies babble using 70 sounds, which make up all the languages in the world. By the end of year one, they listen, observe and eliminate the sounds that people around are not using. How clever is that?!
As for my little boy, for the first 6,5 months of his life, I addressed him only in Polish. It felt important as a new mum to feel comfortable and able to express myself in the most relaxed way. Ka and I were just beginning to get to know each other, and I wanted him to know the “real” me. At the same time, from the start I would sing to my baby in all the languages I can speak (Russian, German, English, and Polish, of course) and support myself with a number of English nursery rhymes played either from DVDs or YouTube. Babies learn to use only those sounds, which they can hear, so from the start, I surrounded my little son with various languages to allow him to get used to the spectrum of sounds.
OUR BRAIN LIKES IT SOONER
Ronald Kotulak, author of “Inside the Brain” proves that 50% of our ability to learn develops in the first three years of life, and another 30% evolves until we are eight. Of course, it doesn’t mean that as much as up to 80% of our intelligence is formed during the early years of childhood. It rather shows when is the best time for a child to soak like a sponge with knowledge, experience, and new abilities and create a sound basis for the further development.
Prof. J. M. Meisel defines the peak of a language acquisition even stricter: “[it] begins shortly before the age of two years, and the gradual decline sets in before the age of five” and ends definitely during an age span between seven and twelve years. Then you can say that the fundamental structure of the brain has been complete.
As you can see then, for children who start learning an additional language at preschool or school this “spongy” period is still “okay” and within the limits, nevertheless the optimal age remains between 0 and 3 years. This is because after our third birthday our brain needs to put more effort into learning an additional language. The younger the child is immersed in the other language, the more fluent and the better at adopting pronunciation he becomes. And, let’s not forget, they get exactly the same chance in academic learning in school as their monolingual peers who already speak the community language.
FRIENDS ALIKE PREFERRED
There is one more reason to raise your child bilingual from birth. The emotions of your little one. An infant who is just beginning to communicate and seems to be happy to play with anyone, no matter what language they are using, will naturally prefer to play and talk with people who speak the same language as their parents, if only he or she can choose. This is how our human nature works. This is what we know best and feel the most comfortable and safe with.
Familiarity is an incredibly strong driver of preferences for the majority of us, whether it’s an adult or a child. It is absolutely natural that children will prefer native speakers to the foreign ones simply because the native speech is more familiar to them and reminds of their parents. Kids are just kids. Part of the nature.
There are situations when we have a natural chance to raise a child that is bilingual from birth (parents of different nationalities) and for some reasons we don’t take it. At other times, there are families like mine, speaking the same language at home, who have to make this additional step forward to create a little bilingual. Before you decide that it’s easier to leave to others introducing this one more language, it’s worth to think twice whether those “others” will be able to give your child the same opportunities and the same learning environment that you can offer.
As parents, we teach our children all those tiny things that altogether make up being an independent little human being. We teach them how to use their fork and knife, we teach them how to blow their nose and how to put on their shoes. If as parents we can help our little ones in such simple things, why leave them alone in this extremely important question like interacting with other people?
Soon I’ll add a separate post about all the other reasons, which encouraged (if not pushed) my family towards raising a naturally bilingual child. Please bear with me.