There are numerous benefits to learning more than one language. Bilingual children tend to have better attention spans and are more adaptable than their monolingual peers, stemming from the fact that their brains must frequently adjust between two languages. Being able to communicate in different languages opens up employment opportunities, different travel prospects, and can lead to enriched relationships with relatives of different backgrounds.
That being said, learning a second language does take work and discipline; it isn’t something that can be done overnight. To top it off, children can lose language skills they once had if they don’t get enough practice. For me, it was essential that my daughter learn a second language in order to speak to her grandparents. Here are some basic guidelines that I learned along the way to help you incorporate a second language into your baby’s life.
Develop a language strategy for your family that exposes your child to multiple languages
There are several different bilingual strategies out there – but they all revolve around the same principle: that a child must learn when or with whom each language is to be used. In multilingual households, one parent can communicate consistently with the child in one language, while the other uses the second language. This is very straightforward and highly effective, as the child will be exposed daily to both languages and will quickly learn how to address each parent.
In unilingual households, like mine, this approach isn’t an option. I’m not nearly proficient enough in my second language to use it on a daily basis. Instead, we opted to send our daughter to a daycare run primarily in a different language so that she would get enough exposure to learn it. Families can also designate specific times – weekly playdates with a friend who speaks another language, or Sunday dinner with the grandparents – when the second language is used by everyone.
Seriously, the kid is learning two languages at once! It takes time for the brain to connect an object and its name, and that process will take longer if the same object has several different names. My doctor warned me that my bilingual baby might take longer to speak than other unilingual kids her age, but that she would likely catch up within a year or two. If you’re concerned, you can always talk to your family doctor, or reach out to bilingual support groups for guidance.
Make learning the language fun
Learning a second language doesn’t have to feel like a chore. Read to your child in both languages and discuss what you’re reading. This is a terrific way to build your child’s vocabulary. Listen to music in different languages and sing songs together. Pick TV shows and movies in your child’s weaker language to give them more exposure. Research multilingual activities in your city that your child can attend. For example, the library in my neighborhood hosts Story Time sessions in four different languages every weekend. Reach out to other parents whose children speak the language you want to develop in your child and set up playdates. The more fun they have, the more they’ll use that second language.
Try not to over-correct
The last thing you want to do is discourage your child from communicating with you, in any language. Correcting every single mistake can be frustrating to a child who is trying to make themselves understood. What you can control, however, is how you respond. I make sure to use proper grammar and pronunciation whenever I respond to my daughter so that I don’t reinforce bad habits.
Don’t give up!
As I said before, learning a second language doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t expect the process to be easy or straight-forward. While enforcing a second language does require discipline and consistency, you don’t need to do everything on your own. But if you can stick with it, your child will grow up being comfortable in not one, but two languages. It’s a gift that they’ll be able to use their entire lives.