Monday, July 13, 2009

Giving my children the bilingual advantage.

I've been speaking to my children in German and English since they were born. The reasons for this are many. My husband immigrated from Germany and we wanted our children to understand and embrace their roots. Their grandparents don't speak English. These are really important reasons. But beyond this aspect of culture and heritage, is the cognitive advantage bilingualism will give my children.

Being bilingual teaches kids to be more flexible in their thinking
Bilingual kids are familiar with two different sets of grammar rules (even if they don't explicitly understand them). They are used to perceiving more subtle differences and nuances than monolingual children and are found to be more aware of meaning and structure in language since they experience so much more language input. A monolingual child only has to deal with one set of sounds when she's learning to speak. Bilingual kids will eventually have to differentiate when to use a German pronunciation for a word and when an English one is required. All this boils down to a higher level of flexibility and awareness that kids may extend to other areas of their lives (math, logic, etc.).

Bilingual kids can see that the world goes beyond just the United States.
Children who speak more than one language inherently understand that there is a wide variety of people in this world and not everyone speaks English. Their bilingualism may make them feel a bit different at first but many kids soon realize that their knowledge of two languages is something special.

How can I help my children become bilingual?
The best thing you can do is to start as early as possible. An early start helps establish habits you'll be able to carry on as your children grow. If you already speak German (or another language), you have a huge headstart, but it's not an absolute requirement. Many parents decide to learn a language right along with their children. You can create an at-home immersion environment with books, CDs, DVDs in German. If there are other German-speakers in the area, find out about social opportunities, join a German school or join (or start up) a German playgroup.

How do I know that this will work with my child?
Well, it all depends on your own circumstances and the level of immersion you'll be able to provide your child. Children have been growing up with 2 or more languages for thousands of years! It's not a new trend and it doesn't require expensive software or advanced study. If you or a family member is bilingual (or even has some compentance), start conversing in German, reading books, listening to music. Let it grow from there.

Won't learning two languages confuse my child?
Children have an amazing ability to learn languages almost effortlessly. You see it in a language explosion of a monolingual child from ages 2-4. It seems they they learn new words and phrases every day! Some children may mix their languages together for a time and others differentiate from a very early age. Even if a child mixes languages, it doesn't mean that the child is confused. It just means that perhaps he couldn't think of the right word in the target language so he substituted what he did know. For most kids, this sorts itself out on its own. I recently interviewed a mother of bilingual toddlers and she noted that her children have always used the "correct" language when speaking (German with her, English with her husband).

Consistency is key
The most important thing to do is to be consistent with your language usage. If you choose to speak German 100% of the time with your kids, than try as much as possible to stick with that. Some families speak German at home and switch to English when they're out and about. Others speak German at breakfast and then switch to English for the rest of the day. Whatever you can do to ensure regular German input on a consistent basis will help to move your children along the road to a greater knowledge of German.

You won't regret it!
So to help kids think "outside the box" and gain a greater understanding of the world around them, help them to become bilingual. You'll be giving them a lifelong headstart in so many areas while providing connections to the past and other places. It is a great investment of time and energy but I guarantee that you won't regret it.

For more information on bilingual parenting, see 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child, available from Alphabet Garten.

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