For many generations, immigrants to the United States wanted their kids to learn English, and English only. For them, total assimilation into American culture was the key to success. But in an increasingly diverse and globalized country, being bilingual is now more often seen as an asset.
A recent story in Time Magazine highlighted the latest research that shows that the multilingual brain is “nimbler, quicker, better able to deal with ambiguities, resolve conflicts and even … resist dementia.”
Even if you’re bilingual, though, it’s not always easy to pass your language on to your child. That’s particularly true when your child starts attending school.
Nancy Rhodes, of the Center for Applied Linguistics in Washington DC, and Kansas City parent and educator Marta Medina offer these tips for parents who want to pass on their native language, as well as those who want to teach their children new languages.
- If one or both parents speak a native language other than English, make it the primary language in which you speak to your children. Even if they respond in English, stick with it as much as you can.
- Start early. When children learn a language before puberty, they have a much better chance of speaking fluently, and without an accent.
- If you’re bilingual, Medina suggests talking to your children in different settings, not just at home or in academic settings. That way, they learn different expressions and cultural traditions along the way. For example, although she speaks English fluently, Medina sometimes takes her kids grocery shopping and challenges them to translate for her.
- Research shows bilingual toddlers learn to speak in the same range of time as monolingual children, Rhodes says. The idea that it takes them longer is a myth. If children are mixing the two languages, it’s just part of the process of learning the two languages.
- Don’t fear that speaking a different language at home will keep your children from assimilating or hurt their academic performance. It’s important to help children develop their literacy skills regardless of the language, Medina says.
- For children who learn English primarily at school, it does take a while for them to develop academic language skills, even if they seem to be speaking confidently on the playground, Rhodes says. That’s why “English Language Learners” often need extra support in school.
- Kansas City has two dual language schools, where at least half the school day is taught in a different language. Rhodes says these types of school are one of the best ways we have in this country to help children become truly bilingual. KCPS’ Foreign Language Academy offers immersion programs in Spanish and French and Academie Lafayette, a charter school, in French. Programs like The Language Project teach various languages to children as young as 18 months, and some programs offer weekend classes in certain languages like Chinese and Japanese.
Every day, Martha Medina says she’s reminded that it was worth it to teach her children to be bilingual.
“When they have the opportunity to switch in one second to another language, when we go to a place and they help a person communicate with another person, when they are talking about their future careers and how they’re going to use Spanish. It is a daily happiness,” Medina says.
- Nancy Rhodes, Language Consultant at the Center for Applied Linguistics
- Martha Medina, Kansas City parent and educator