by Rupa Raman
It’s 3-year-old Kai’s first day at Trilok Pre-School in Brooklyn, New York, and he is understandably nervous. His anxieties vanish, however, and he breaks into a grin as his new friends welcome him with a song set to the tune of Are You Sleeping Brother John? Not just any song but one that greets him in his native language. The minute Kai hears the words, “Welcome Kai, Konichiwa,” he feels at home, recognizing the familiar Japanese greeting. Kai is already beginning to love his new pre-school.
Trilok provides an arts-based multilingual and multicultural learning environment for children between the ages of 2 and 5. Here, students, not all of them bilingual, enjoy the distinctive advantage of being exposed to several languages including Japanese, Chinese, German, Spanish, and many Indian dialects with plenty of opportunities to use and hear them every day.
As research establishes that bilingual children grow up with an edge in many aspects of learning, creative thinking and problem solving, well-meaning parents in English-only environments strive to give their children that advantage.
The process of learning a second language is not very different from learning the first. The methods and strategies that apply to learning one language work for any number of languages. In her book Raising a Bilingual Child, Barbara Zurer Pearson, Ph.D., writes, “As parents, you do not teach children language, but you create better or worse environments in which your child’s language develops.”
No matter your child rearing style, with the right tools and a nurturing environment, children in monolingual families can begin to enjoy the many benefits of multilingualism.
It’s not what you know, it’s what you do that matters
The key to language learning lies in keeping it enjoyable regardless of whether a child is already in a bilingual environment or is being introduced to one. The former isn’t necessarily a ticket to becoming bilingual, according to Ana Lomba, an educator and award-winning author. She has written several books and resources to help young children learn French, Spanish and Chinese and creates e-storybooks and iPad apps that she believes augment the learning process.
In an interview with Parent USA City, Lomba emphasized, “A child’s proficiency in a second language will depend much more on what the parents actually do with the language than on the parents’ proficiency level.” Quoting the story of the Turtle and the Hare, she adds that monolingual parents who make an effort can actually win the race against bilingual parents who take their bilingualism for granted and miss opportunities to pass their language on to their children.
It all boils down to what parents and educators do to encourage children’s second language acquisition. The emphasis is on “play” so that children are motivated to learn the language involuntarily.
Shh…They’re learning, but don’t tell them!
Sudha Seetharaman, founder and director of Trilok, who learned several Indian languages growing up, seems to have nailed it with her pre-school’s multicultural environment and playful approach to language learning.
“The first step is to make kids aware that people speak different languages and that one should accept them,” she says. “This acceptance leads to curiosity about other languages, making learning easier.
“That’s why we incorporate the welcome greetings in various languages. Once kids know where their friends are from and what language they speak at home, it’s very natural for them to want to ask questions and learn more.”
A playful approach to second language acquisition involves serious and consistent measures on the part of parents and educators. “An effective learning environment for the young dual language learner is one in which strategies are in place to intentionally and continuously support bilingualism,” says Sue Adair, director of education for the nationwide network of Goddard Schools.
One need not look far to find these effective strategies that experts recommend.
● Sing. Music serves as an effective teaching tool with young children. “Music, dance and theatre are an important part of learning. Education is not just about reading or math but about becoming more open-minded and tolerant. Incorporating music and songs from different countries and cultures is an important aspect of learning at Trilok,” says Seetharaman. She suggests that parents expose themselves and their children to music and theatre in another language.
● Play. “You learn to speak by playing with sounds; you learn to read by playing with books and pretending to read; you learn to write by playing with crayons and paper,” observes Lomba. Experts agree that play is a crucial element of learning.
Seetharaman believes that playdates provide effective learning opportunities. She asks parents to make playdates with children who speak another language and to get to know their friends and neighbors from other countries better. “New York is supposed to be a melting pot, but in many ways it’s not, because people tend to keep to their boxes of community most of the time,” she adds, recollecting her father’s observation.
● Read. One of the most enriching activities parents can share with children is reading to them, regardless of language. Reading becomes even more important when a child is learning a new language.
“Read aloud to your children and continue doing so even after they learn how to read on their own. Reading will help you advance much faster in the new language, with the additional benefit that you will be modeling reading skills for your children!” recommends Ana Lomba.
If parents themselves aren’t very fluent in the second language, this could prove to be a challenge. But it doesn’t have to be complex material. Parents could make a start with common words, rhymes or poems, or simply by labeling objects, Sue Adair suggests. Using audio books or online “storybooks” is another way to get started.
● Talk. Everyday conversation accelerates language learning in children, but it cannot be taken for granted. Not conversing in a language consistently is the reason many bilingual parents fail to raise bilingual children, stresses Lomba. “If you don’t ask your children to speak in the language, they will not develop speaking skills.”
It’s essential to find and create opportunities to have conversations in the new language. “Engage young children in conversation during daily routines, for example, during mealtime or before nap time using the second language,” suggests Sue Adair. Encourage them to make new friends who speak the language and ask questions. Go to shows or intercultural gatherings and provide opportunities where children can converse in the new language.
Dr. Pearson summed it up when she told Parent USA City that parents should create pleasant, positive associations with the new language in the child’s mind, and eliminate negative associations in that language such as scolding.
Schools with language immersion programs in which students receive instruction in both languages alternately are an option for those looking for a more academic and long-term approach.
Parents sometimes concerned about confusion—but kids aren’t
There’s no question that learning a second language enriches one’s world view and opens up possibilities when it comes to higher education, social networking and career choices, but, not everyone is sold on the idea.
“Some parents have concerns about learning delays and confusion associated with second language learning,” admits Seetharaman. She addresses this concern, assuring parents that learning a new language in the long run can only help and not hurt. “Every child has a different learning pace and style. And that’s okay! It may take a little longer for some children but it’s never really something to worry about. “
Starting early and staying consistent are two aspects of language learning that rarely spark debate.
As for Kai, he has settled into his class comfortably and is currently working on a German greeting for Sebastian, a half-American, half-German child their class will welcome tomorrow.
Read more on Parent USA City:
“Raising a Bilingual Child Is Challenging But Worth It,” by Rupa Raman – the advantages and challenges, especially for families that are already dual-language
Rupa Raman writes on intentional parenting, holistic living, travel, and other topics. She has published articles for the United Way and contributes to ModernMom.com, EverythingMom.com, Travels.com, KidandParent.in and several other websites. Visit her blog on reading to kids.