My kids love bopping to the beat of the latest Bollywood music (for the uninitiated, Bollywood refers to the prolific Indian cinema industry centered in the city of Mumbai/Bombay).
Even if my kids don't understand all the words, they enjoy Indian music and instruments. Being an immigrant to the U.S., it’s important to me that my kids understand and enjoy the richness of their cultural heritage. Language plays a big part in it.
I imagine there are other American parents who feel the same way. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, 21 percent of school-aged children in America speak a language other than English at home and this number is only growing.
I speak from personal experience when I say it can be challenging to have your kids learn a language that others around them don’t speak. However, there are many resources and much that can be done if you are serious about bringing up your kids to be bilingual (or multilingual).
Advantages of Being Bilingual
It enhances cognitive brain functions.
Being bilingual appears to act as an exercise for the brain. A study done in 2004 by scientists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee demonstrated that bilinguals used “executive control” functions while separating multiple languages in their brains. This is the part of the brain that makes people more attentive to their surroundings, allows them to switch between different cognitive functions, and plays a part in higher level decision making processes.
Bilingual kids were found to do better than their monolingual counterparts on tasks that need more active attention and problem-solving skills. Even children brought up in a bilingual home who were not yet speaking did better than those raised in a single-language home.
Being bilingual can also helps delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease according to another study at the University of California, San Diego. The higher the degree of bilingualism, the slower is the rate of brain degeneration.
It may yield more career opportunities.
The National Center for Learning Disabilities tells us that the average bilingual person earns between 5 and 25 percent more than her monolingual peers. In the globalized job market today, a person who speaks multiple languages would certainly have more career opportunities. Knowing your customer’s language can help you understand and offer better service.
You can gain richer life experiences.
By far, the most compelling reason I can think of to learn a new language is that it opens the door to other cultures. Enjoyment of art, music, and literature are all enhanced by knowing the language and cultural context of the artist. World travel becomes more fun and meaningful if one can communicate, and make connections with people during the journey.
Sometimes, the challenges you may face may be psychological. At times, kids resist learning another language because they don’t want to be seen as different from their classmates and friends.
Other challenges may have to do with the direction the educational system has been heading. Schools and universities facing budget cuts tend to cut down on their foreign language programs, even though interest in learning foreign languages has grown in the past decade.
Forbes reports that the percentage of public and private schools offering foreign languages decreased from 31 to 25 percent between 1997 and 2008, and private schools that do offer bilingual programs can be very expensive and out of reach for many.
What Can Parents Do?
Don’t be disheartened, there is still a lot that we as parents can do at home to promote bilingualism:
Know they can handle it: Don’t worry that introducing more than one language will cause confusion for your kids. Even very young kids can recognize and switch languages, for instance, between parents and grandparents or between the playground and home.
Language mixing is normal: Some parents become concerned when their child begins mixing up both of the languages in one utterance, before truly understanding that both of the languages are separate. This is a common phenomenon among bilingual children and they usually grow out of it with time and encouragement.
Decide the context: To avoid some confusion, pick a context in which you will introduce the second language, and stick to it. For example, you can decide to speak a different language only at meal times, or only when one parent talks to your child, or in one place only.
Speaking first, writing later: My experience has been that it’s much easier to start with speaking and vocabulary-building. The alphabet, reading, and writing can be tackled later as kids progress.
Keep it light-hearted and fun: Make the language learning environment one without pressure. Often inhibitions prevent kids from speaking the language — so keeping the fun element is important. Let them know it’s OK to make mistakes.
Immerse them in the language: The best way to learn a language is to provide lots of opportunities for your kids to hear the language in question. Let them hear you speak regularly. We read Indian folk-tales (in both English and Hindi), listen to Hindi music, and watch Hindi cartoons on DVD with my family.
Bilingual babysitters: When kids are very young consider hiring a nanny or an occasional babysitter who speaks your language. Often, babysitters will be more consistent in their usage and will not switch to English thereby enabling your child to pick up the language quickly.
Read out loud: Take out books to read together from your local library’s foreign language selection. Libraries often act as a great resource by featuring free language learning programs and activities for kids, so look out for them. We often visit two wonderful blogs — Jump Into a Book and Pragmatic Mom when we need suggestions for books featuring multi-cultural themes and characters.
Research cultural associations and organizations: Organizations affiliated to your country can also provide opportunities to participate in cultural activities, celebrations of holidays, and meet friends who speak the same language. A playdate where only the second language is spoken can be great practice. Many such associations also offer weekly low cost language lessons for kids.
Take a trip: If possible, travel. My family makes it a point to visit India every year so that the kids can meet with grandparents, cousins, and the extended family. I watch my kids pick up more phrases in a few weeks of playing with their cousins than I could teach them in several months!
Use online resources: One free website that comes highly recommended for learning Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese or Dutch is Duolingo (they have iPhone and Android apps too). You can also refer to my article on language learning websites for more free resources.
Teaching your kids a second or third language requires discipline, patience, and continual work for years. Even if they resist today, it’s my belief that my kids will eventually benefit in ways that we cannot even foresee. I certainly consider it well worth the effort.
Ford, S. (2000, January 1). Language Mixing Among Bilingual Children. Retrieved September 3, 2014, from The University of Hawai’i System
Olson, D. How Does Being Bilingual Affect Learning? Retrieved August 12, 2014, from National Center for Learning Disabilities
Second Language Acquisition. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
Skorton, D., & Altschuler, G. (2012, August 27). America's Foreign Language Deficit. Retrieved August 12, 2014, from Forbes