Five Ways to Encourage Second Language Development
Studies have shown that fostering a second language in your child has extremely positive cognitive and cultural advantages. However, as most of us live in a mono-linguistic society, it can be difficult to start and maintain language learning. Less than 10% of all Americans can speak a second language fluently. Also, the amount of exposure to a second (or third) language will vary drastically from place to place. As a former resident of South Texas and Southern California, I probably had much more exposure to Spanish than, say, someone from Caribou, Maine. Now that I’m a mom, and I live overseas in a non English-speaking environment, I’ve seen firsthand some of the trials and triumphs of learning another language – the things that work, and the things that don’t. For the mom who doesn’t want to wait until high school to get her child started with a new language, I’d like to share a little bit of my experience in this area.
I’m sure many of us wonder, how much are all these hours of watching “Dora the Explorer” really helping my child learn a second language? There are a variety of opinions on this subject, with shows like Dora the Explorer and Go Diego Go! continually gaining popularity. Some linguists think that these shows should not offer the English alongside Spanish, and that by doing so, they are actually inhibiting a child’s language learning ability. Their reasoning is children don’t think like adults when it comes to language learning. Kids can hear the word vaca, for example, and automatically associate it with a cow without hearing it reinforced in English. Others believe that these shows are a great introduction to foreign language, and give parents an opportunity to interact with their child in another language. I tend to side with this opinion. My son has learned some basic Spanish skills from these shows, which is helpful when he interacts with my husband’s side of the family. While this is by no means a complete education, it gives the child a great chance to learn the different sounds that exist in another language and to construct a few basic sentences in that language.
When we first moved overseas, I was so frustrated at how resistant my son was to learning Arabic. Then, his teacher at preschool had the brilliant idea of loaning us a CD with some children’s songs in Arabic. My son LOVES them! He can do all the dance moves that go along with the songs, and he has learned body parts, animals and verbs by listening to one CD. He’s even starting to teach his sister some of the things he knows.
For the parent who wants to do more in-depth learning, tutors are available to help kids learn another language. These programs usually take place after school for an hour or two a week, and they can involve intense, one-on-one language learning or group learning. Ask the head of the language department at your local high school (or university) if there are any programs like that available in your area. For us, tutoring has proven extremely valuable. We are NOT native speakers here, and while we can help our son a bit, he doesn’t really like speaking with us in Arabic – and to be honest, he doesn’t learn very much! Having a native speaker who talks to him only in Arabic has really improved his communication skills.
Language Education Programs
Did you know that there are foreign language immersion schools in the US? Right now, there are over 200 of these special schools located throughout the United States. Some teach completely in a foreign language, some have some classes in English and some in the foreign language, and some are “two-way” programs with a mixture of native and non-native English speakers learning from each other as well as their teachers.
Sometimes, we have to step out of our comfort zone to get this going and try to get those brain muscles working, too! There are places that offer mom & child language learning programs to help those of us that want to take an active role in the language learning process. For those of us that have a bilingual family, having each parent speak in their native tongue can cause language learning to be a little slow in the beginning, but has tremendous benefits long term. If you feel comfortable doing this, ask abuela or abuelo to speak with your child only in Spanish. I knew someone who made a deal with her neighbor – my friend spoke only English to her neighbor’s kids when they came over, and her neighbor spoke only Spanish to the kids when they were at her house. Pretty neat, huh? There are endless possibilities in this category if you want to get your child rolling with a second language!
Some more information:
Kids Source has a great FAQ page about the benefits of children learning a second language
Center for Applied Linguistics home page