The Language Melting Pot
“Can I have a cookie for dessert?” begs 4-year-old Paulina, tugging on her mother’s skirt.
“Tienes que preguntar en español,” replies her mom, Raquel, reminding her daughter that the family speaks only Spanish at home. Raquel Espinosa and her husband, Douglas, are among a growing number of parents who choose to give their child the gift of two languages.
Judging by the number of people in the United States who currently speak more than one language, that gift may be very wise, indeed.
U.S. Census figures from 2011 show that the number of bi- or multilingual people in this country has steadily increased to more than 50 million. It’s a trend that shows no signs of slowing.
Which languages do Americans speak? According to a 2015 Census Bureau American Community Survey:
• 78.5 percent speak English,
• 13 percent speak Spanish and
• 3.6 percent speak other Indo-European languages, such as French, German and Russian.
Globally, the picture is quite different, however: According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, worldwide:
• 11.82 percent speak Mandarin Chinese,
• 5.77 percent speak Spanish and
• 4.67 percent speak English.
As the world shrinks and countries become increasingly interdependent, language and cultural experts predict that within 10 years it will be necessary for everyone to speak a second or third language. This is an area where the United States lags far behind other parts of the world. Western Europeans, for example, are often fluent in two or even three languages. Shouldn’t American children be their equals?
Why Learn Another Language?
Like thousands of other Americans, Raquel and Douglas Espinosa made the decision to speak Spanish at home partly to ensure that Paulina could understand her heritage language, spoken by Raquel’s family in Mexico. But they also believe that by becoming bilingual, their daughter will be a citizen of the world, open to other cultures and the social and intellectual benefits that go along with knowing more than one language.
“Being bilingual is an undeniable advantage,” says Alison Mackey, co-author of The Bilingual Edge (Harper Perennial, 2007). A linguistics professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and the mother of two young children, Mackey knows that advanced knowledge of two languages gives kids enhanced creativity and improved literacy skills. Numerous studies have also demonstrated that children who are at least bilingual are more likely to outperform their monolingual peers in those critical standardized exams in school.
Of course, there are plenty of other reasons to teach your child another language:
• The bi- or multilingual child will feel at ease in different environments, increasing her self-esteem and self-confidence, says Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children’s Association, which provides support, tips and resources on raising a multilingual child.
• The child will learn to appreciate, and innately accept, other cultures, adds Bosemark.
• And, with more companies working with businesses in other countries, a bi- or multilingual child will have important opportunities for future employment. “Our world economy is interdependent now, and no country can be autonomous,” says François Thibaut, founder of the groundbreaking Language Workshop for Children. “So children with multiple languages will have the best opportunities to do well.”
• Finally, as any bilingual person will tell you, speaking another language expands your horizons, and it’s fun!
When to Begin?
“Start them really young!” says Thibaut. During the first three years of life, a child’s brain is extremely malleable, Thibaut explains, “like warm wax that can be imprinted with any language. And then, after age 3, the wax starts to get colder and harder.”
For Thibaut, the fact that infants can’t yet speak doesn’t mean that they can’t learn; he likens them to computers without printers, absorbing information that they will be able to print out later, when they start speaking.
Bosemark agrees: the longer you wait for your child to start learning another language, the more difficult it becomes, and the more likely you’ll put it off forever. “So, even if your child is already well on his way to speaking his first language, right now is the perfect time to add the second,” she says.
But while starting your child at a young age is a great idea, Mackey points out that “the younger, the better” is not an absolute rule when it comes to language learning. “Many older children and some adults do achieve very high proficiency, even though they began to learn their second language later on,” she says.
What If You Aren’t Bilingual?
Using a second language might come naturally to parents who are already bilingual, but what if you speak only English? Denise Papert is one monolingual parent who recalls a painful academic struggle to fulfill her world language requirement in high school. Not wanting her daughter to suffer as she did, Papert enrolled her 2-year-old in a French program. Now Papert also takes full advantage of the course’s teaching materials at home.
“Isabel repeats the words from ‘Les parties du corps,’ and points to her body parts. And I’m learning right alongside her,” Papert says. She adds that French music tapes are a great way to learn; she plays them every day, and Isabel loves them. Knowing a little of the lingo herself was one reason Papert selected French, but she notes that having several French neighbors, her daughter gets plenty of exposure to the language through them.
“It’s a myth that only bilingual parents can raise bilingual children,” Mackey emphasizes. From her perspective, things have never looked better – there are literally thousands of opportunities and hundreds of ways for children to learn second languages in the United States, ranging from classes to bilingual toys like Dora the Explorer and the iPad. “With the right foundation of knowledge,” she says, “any parent can raise a child who knows more than one language, even if that parent is monolingual.”
One example of this is Thibaut’s Professor Toto program, a series including books, CDs and DVDs, all with original songs and designed specifically for kids who haven’t been exposed to more than one language at home. A quick online search reveals just how many programs are available.
Michelle Hanson believes strongly that monolingual parents should not hold their children back. She and her husband adopted their daughter from China, and enrolled her in a Chinese school, where about 90 percent of the students come from non-Mandarin speaking households.
“We have a wonderful community here,” says Hanson, “and it’s great when Susie shows me what she’s been doing at school.”
At age 4, the child is becoming fluent in two languages, and Hanson is struggling to keep up with her daughter. But she sees no problem with her own limited Chinese, believing rather that as a parent, she can best support her child by showing an interest in her Chinese homework and by asking her to recite or show what she has learned.
“Everyone says learning Chinese is hard,” Hanson says, “but Susie doesn’t know that!”
Successful Language Learning
Here are some tips for encouraging young children to learn a different language:
• Have fun integrating a different language as a part of your daily routines. Sing morning songs in the language; play counting and alphabet games; and have a “word of the day.”
• Read stories to your child in the language. Keep these light, fun and brief. Encourage your child to interact with the book.
• Find other children who speak the target language for your child to play with.
• Look for games in the target language, including board games and flash cards that encourage interaction.
• Find funny cartoons and characters that use the target language.
• Use crafts as an opportunity to speak and interact in the target language.
• Play songs in the language in the car or use headphones on public transport.
• Be enthusiastic and positive about learning a new language.
Judy Molland is a freelance writer.