As a mother of a 5 year old little girl, I am familiar with the struggles of teaching my child to communicate and understand language, both verbal and non-verbal. Everyone with children is familiar with the stress level of meeting the age-appropriate developmental milestones for our children.
In our family we had the added stress level of deciding whether to teach our child to become bilingual from the very beginning, because my native language is Danish and my husband’s native language is English. When our daughter was born, we decided that I was going to communicate with her in Danish and my husband in English. Our intent since we got married had been that if we had children, we would raise them bilingual if at all possible. However, I found out really quickly how difficult it was to keep the conversation with my daughter in Danish while the rest of the conversation in the home took place in English. After a lot of consideration, we decided to teach her English first and then Danish later.
Later has now arrived for us. Our daughter has turned 5 and has a good grasp of basic English and has started kindergarten this fall. I think it is time for her to learn some more Danish language at this point. Looking back, I would have probably approached the situation a little differently. Here are five things that I believe any parent can do at home when trying to teach their child two languages in the very early years.
1. Speaking the language consistently.
If you want your child to become fluent in two languages from the beginning, it will require that at least one parent communicate with the child in the target language all the time. This can be a challenge if the language of choice in the family is different than the one you are trying to teach, as in my case. The bigger challenge is if the language you are trying to teach is not spoken in public, because you then become your child’s sole source to hearing, speaking and communication in the language. You must believe that your child will figure out for themselves how to sort out the difference between the two languages spoken in the household, as long as the parents are consistently communicating with the child in their own respective languages.
2. Books and Reading.
Along with speaking the target language, reading for your child in the target language adds another important component for learning. This is one thing I have done and still do with my daughter with success. In the beginning it is helpful to have picture books, where the child can point and be interactive while the adult reads. Rhymes are also helpful to learn the melody of the language and can assist the child with pronunciation. I have sometimes read stories in Danish and then translated for my daughter, so she gets the full understanding of the story.
3. Singing and music.
Singing children’s songs in the target language has been one of my favorite ways to introduce Danish to my daughter. I have three children’s songs that I have been singing for her at night. She knows the songs and what they are about and can sing along to an extent now. Singing is a fun and alternate way for children to learn a foreign language. Adding music CDs to this is also a great way for children to learn songs in the target language. Our daughter has several CDs in Danish that she enjoys listening to.
4. Movies and children’s shows.
This can add a great alternative to what you are already trying to teach your child. In the US, shows such as Nickelodeon’s “Dora the Explorer” and “Ni Hao Kai-Lan” are both shows where English is the primary language, but where the characters can also speak Spanish in one and Chinese in the other. This provides a way for children to learn little words and phrases in a foreign language while watching a show in English.
5. Professional Schooling and Tutoring.
Finally there is the option of placing your child in a professional schooling or tutoring environment where the foreign language of choice is the focus of instruction. As a language teacher I have worked in several different environments, both in formal classroom setting and in private tutoring situations, and both have their advantages in learning languages. Depending on the need of the student, instruction can be provided at different paces and with different goals and objectives in mind. The internet even provides another option for an alternative classroom setting today, which works great for many families.
At the end of the day, parents have to decide what they want for their children and then develop a plan based on the needs of their family situation. Any of the above mentioned situations can be helpful and productive while teaching a foreign language, but most of all a sense of consistency for the child is key in becoming fluent.