Bilingual... Nation

Raising a bilingual child in a multicultural world

By Amy Newman

Alaska is becoming increasingly diverse. According to the most recent US Census, six percent of Alaskans were born in a foreign country, while another 14 percent do not speak English at home. In Anchorage, the Mountain View neighborhood is the most diverse in the nation, with students speaking close to 100 different languages. Chances are, even very young children have already been exposed to at least one, if not more, foreign languages.

From job opportunities to higher standardized test scores, learning a foreign language has benefits beyond simply being able to talk to your neighbor. Whether you are from a dual-language household or have picked up just a sprinkling of words from Dora the Explorer, you can help foster your child’s love of language and open up the world to him in the process.

Benefits of bilingualism

Proficiency in a foreign language is as important to children today as learning technology in the classroom, says Brandon Locke, senior director of the Anchorage School District’s World Languages Department.

“Our society is changing so quickly, and not just American society,” he explains. “As our global market continues to expand in terms of business opportunities across the world, English alone is not going to be enough.”

Learning a foreign language has more immediate benefits as well. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, foreign language study supports academic achievement, provides cognitive benefits, and has a positive impact on attitudes and beliefs about other cultures.
“It is true there is a link to a bilingual brain and how well (students) do on things like the SAT or ACT, how it apparently affects not only their cognitive thinking but also their problem-solving abilities,” Brandon says.

Introduce language early

Most children don’t begin formal language instruction until they enter middle or high school. But research shows that earlier is better when it comes to learning a foreign language.

“Researchers say that before puberty, your brain tends to be more wired to accept a second language or a third language much easier,” Brandon explains. “And obviously the younger they are – and I’m talking infant to 5 or 6 – is when it just happens naturally.”

Children who begin learning a second language at a young age follow the same progression as children learning to speak English, Brandon says. They won’t use complete sentences right away, but the constant exposure to the language, repetition of words and gentle corrections lay the foundation for language acquisition.

“The foundation you give early on is the greatest stepping stone,” says Jennifer Schmidt-Hutchins, principal of Fronteras Spanish Immersion Charter School in Wasilla. “It’s the basics that they need to start forming sentences, to ask questions, to be specific when describing something.”

Parents who speak a foreign language should begin talking to their children at birth, Brandon says. Reading them books written in the native language provide additional exposure, and contribute to the child’s literacy by helping them learn to read and write in the language, he adds.

English-speaking parents will need to get creative to provide language exposure, Jennifer says. Consider enrollment in a language immersion preschool, elementary school or foreign language camp, or seek out a babysitter or nanny who speaks a foreign language, she says.

Consistency is key

Children will hear English every time they leave the house, so parents must be diligent in providing children the opportunity to communicate in the foreign language, Jennifer says. For children in dual-language households, that exposure should come from the non-English speaking parent.

“Talk to the child in the language as much as possible,” Jennifer says. “They’re going to get the English influence from the other parent, so keep away from speaking English.”

How parents implement the “no English” rule will vary among households. Some ban English from being spoken in the home entirely, while others allow the child to speak it only with the English-speaking parent. Whatever option you choose, Brandon says, the key is to be consistent.

“If you’re going to do (it), you have to commit,” he says. “You can’t flip-flop around.”

For English speaking parents, Jennifer reiterates the importance of finding resources that will give the child daily exposure to the language.

“Be diligent in looking for resources,” she says. “Look for preschools, get a book that has the English-Spanish (translation), learn phrases. Find a heritage speaker and expose them to what she knows. Just expose them.”

There’s an app for that

Apps like Duolingo and Babbel or programs like Rosetta Stone allow for constant exposure to a language and reinforce vocabulary and grammar that children have already learned, Jennifer says.
“There are so many online programs for every single age and every single ability,” she says. “Learning by games is just the best way to reinforce.”

Brandon agrees that apps and other language programs have their place, provided they are not the only avenue for learning. So much of speaking a foreign language involves understanding its cultural nuances, he says, which is something not even the best app can provide.

“Language and culture are so incredibly intertwined,” he says. “Just speaking the language isn’t enough. If you don’t know how to act appropriately and understand the cultural differences, then you’re not going to be prepared to speak the language.”

That’s why seeking out cultural activities is just as important as exposure to native speakers, Brandon says

“Language is a part of a culture,” Brandon says. “So the reality is, the earlier you’re exposed to it and use it and relate to it, then the more apt you are to pick up the cultural innuendos along the way.”