Back when most parents in the United States were in school, they took “Foreign Languages.” Most students stuck with them for three or four years, but few became fluent. Most got stuck in the thorns of conjugations and grammar confusion.
Not so today. Multilingualism is an increasingly necessary skill set in our globalized world. And it starts early. Second language proficiency is a life-long learning experience that begins on average during the ages of six and nine years old around the world .
Contrary to common misconceptions, research shows that a child’s brain can discern and negotiate up to three different languages from birth to the age of three. Research says that at that age the child’s brain shifts into a mode that imprints one of those as the first-language and the other as the second. So, the earlier you begin language exposure at home, the stronger your child’s disposition to become bilingual will be.
So, how can parents support world language acquisition at home? Some refer to their own limited exposure to foreign languages during their school years while other parents might draw upon their heritage language speaker experience to approach language learning. Regardless of your exposure to language or experience teaching your child a world language, it is something you can do and feel empowered to endeavor.
Although it can seem as a challenging task for many parents, I offer a series of practical approaches that should make the process genuine, attainable, and fun for the whole family.
1. Set realistic goals for yourself: Some language is better than no language at all! If the extent of your abilities enable you to use a limited amount of vocabulary, then use it intentionally and creatively. You might not be able to teach your child to use the preterite and imperfect tenses…but you will definitely be able to teach her simple vocabulary that will make language acquisition the norm and not the exception.
2. Label, label, label! Use labels for objects around the house. Even if you decide to only label things in the playroom or their bedroom, having a visual reference will promote language learning. It will also support decoding when your child is ready to read.
3. If you’re a native or heritage speaker, use your language and do it consistently: The one-parent-one-language approach is recommended when trying to raise bilingual children. Stick to your language! Children are able to associate a person to their linguistic code and switch between people and languages quite easily.
4. Take advantage of authentic cultural experiences in your community: The acquisition of cultural competencies is as important as acquiring language itself. Take advantage of activities, cultural events, festivals etc. in your local community where you can become immersed in the language. The sensory stimulation and immersion will promote continued language learning for all in the family and expand your cultural horizons.
5. Switch the channel: Try Spanish-language TV, listen to Spanish music on the radio, or switch the settings for your DVD! All of these provide comprehensible input and promote language acquisition. They are simple ways to expose yourself and your family to authentic language, refine auditory skills and hone in on interpretive competencies in the language in a fun and jovial way.
6. Go beyond your community: Whether near or far, get out of your comfort zone and discover local multicultural communities! Philadelphia is rich in culture, explore China Town, Northeast Philly’s or even Kennett Square’s Latino Communities. Other locations like South Florida offer a microcosm of Latin America in the US. The Southwest boasts a plethora of border towns and cities which will expand your cultural and linguistic horizons as well. Cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco also offer the opportunity to discover Asian cultures and languages. Family-friendly linguistic and cultural immersion opportunities abound abroad. Take the leap and plan an alternative and meaningful vacation for your family this year!
Second language acquisition is attainable for all families. It’s not exclusive for heritage or native speakers of other languages. I encourage you to look for ways to infuse your family dynamics with languages and cultures beyond the one you routinely speak at home. It equips children to fully engage in a global society, promotes compassion and tolerance for others, and is also a profitable skill to have in the future.