Monday, 13 October 2014

Should you expose your child to an additional language?

Most of us know that the best time for a child to learn an additional language is as soon as possible after birth, simply by being exposed to it. So many children in the world speak two, three or four languages fluently. Did you know the majority of children in the world are multilingual?

So why would you wait until secondary school to begin learning a new language? Why would you wait for the most awkward time in children's lives to teach them correct pronounciation of foreign words in front of the whole class? Why would you give them word lists to learn by heart when they could have learnt them effortlessly in the first years of their lives?

Before I had a child ( and hadn't yet met Finley's dad and lived in France), I thought that if I ever had children, I would like them to learn English by natural exposure as early as possible. I didn't want them to go through the difficulties of having to learn it from scratch at 11 years old, whether they wanted to or not (home education wasn't on my mind at the time).

It turned out that my child lives in England, has an English daddy and a French mummy, so nothing is easiest for him than to learn both languages simultaneously. He speaks both fluently.

The question of additional languages came back to my mind after Finn's first birthday. We already knew he wouldn't go to school and I didn't know whether he would be interested in learning a third language or not in the future. It was important that it would be his choice. At the same time, if there's something a parent can help their child learn, it's languages, by ensuring they are exposed to them early on.

I researched online to find out if children who already had two languages naturally could learn a third language by having a babysitter fluent in that language. I didn't find a single testimony of this situation, but plenty of monolingual families who had successfully created an environment in which their child could learn a second language effortlessly.

I hesitated for months over this as I was worried that Finn would be confused by hearing three different languages. I wasn't sure it would be in his best interest in the end, especially if we could only afford a few hours of German childcare weekly. (The third language was chosen easily as we have connections to Germany through friends and family)

When we finally made a decision, Finn was 16 months old. We found a German speaking babysitter who only ever spoke German to him. At first, I would ask her to do the same activities as I had done with Finn so that the context would be the same, only the language would change. Finn didn't even seem to notice she was speaking differently!

When I did my Montessori teaching practice, we decided to look for a German-speaking au pair to live with us for 6 months as we saw that time as a rare opportunity for Finn to boost his third language. And did it work! Finn now gets two hours a week of German play, which could be better but seems enough to keep him going.

My worry has been that Finn would not necessarily enjoy learning a new language and we always decided that if it wasn't working out, we would stop. But he loves it! He asks me everyday how to say particular words in German. The whole experience has given him an awareness of different languages that I definitely did not have at his age. I love how, when he can't find a word, he says it in a different language. No, he is not mixing up all the languages because he is confused, he does it consciously and intentionally, making full use of his knowledge of the three languages. He is able to navigate from one to another in a flash.
 
I should add that he is far from fluent in German but he is able to understand most things said to him and spontaneously says many words and short phrases.
 
We are so happy with our decision to introduce a third language early on, and have no doubts that it works. If you are thinking of taking the plunge, or are in the thick of it, I would strongly encourage you to do it or keep going. It is an extremely rewarding experience for all involved.
 
I would love to hear about your experiences with additional languages. Is your child monolingual? Bilingual? Trilingual? Please tell us about your family!

 

4 comments:

  1. That's so interesting that you actually did it!!
    I'm English, my husband's Swedish and we live in Sweden. I can't tell you how many years I've pondered these same thoughts... I guess most of us have ;-)
    As soon as multilingual family life is on the table, there's the question of whether to add another. As you say, so many families have connections to three, four, five languages right from birth.
    We nearly ended up sending our oldest to a Finnish speaking nursery... And then a Swedish/ Spanish school... Ultimately what swayed the decision was the fact that neither of us really have connections to either of these languages or cultures. The staff at the nursery were particularly helpful and open, asking in what ways we were prepared to change our lives to include this new language and nurture it... Did we want to start taking holidays in Finland? ...Ultimately, we didn't! :-)
    I'm still pondering!

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    1. Hi Steph, thanks for your comment! I have come to believe that any amount of exposure to an additional language is beneficial to a child as it really opens up their world, introducing them to a different culture, boosts their cognitive flexibility as they compare words from one language to another, improves their memory, their awareness of sounds, their musicality... In your case it was important that your child would become fluent in Finnish so they could be comfortable at nursery; I would have made the same decision as you probably. But if the child does not have any "performance" expectations, then I believe that playing a few games in a different language each week could have benefits (like a picture bingo game, or learning colours) even if you don't personally have any connections with that language.

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  2. Thank you for this post, Elsa! I've always been wanting to know more languages myself and my dream is for Cara to be multilingual. I'm glad I read your post as it made me decide to introduce earlier than I would have. :-)

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    1. What languages is Cara going to learn? Being multilingual has so many benefits, I believe it's one of the best gifts a parent can give to their child.

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