Raising children to be bilingual seems to be a natural choice for Australian families as there are so many languages and cultures here. In fact, bilingualism is being cherished worldwide for its usefulness and various cognitive benefits.
As much as excitement and pride a bilingual child can bring to the family, confusion, struggle or even disappointment also happens. I’d like to show you what raising bilingual children is really like based on my own experiences as a Mandarin teacher to young children.
Advantages of nurturing bilingualism in young children
“It’s easier for children to learn a language”, as you may have heard. While I personally hesitate to call it ‘easy’, I do agree (based on my daily observations)that children own various unique abilities for language learning.
- Smart little ears and smart little mouths (particularly before adolescence)
Ear and mouth muscles help people capture the right sounds and replicate them. Due to the fact that children’s muscles are still growing, they are much more sensitive than that of adults. This is why the younger a person starts to learn a language, the less likely they are to develop a mismatched accent.
You can play or sing nursery rhymes and songs to your child(ren). Even though it does not promise the acquisition of a language, it is definitely an effective way to maintain the sensitivity of their ears and mouths.
- Adaptive mindset (particularly for infant stage)
Children may look stubborn when they become obsessed with a particular food or toy. However, when it comes to bilingualism, they are incredibly open-minded especially when they start from the infant stage. So if your family has another language to offer to your child(ren), start now!
- Passion in naming things (particularly for toddler stage)
Toddlers love to learn how to name things, this is why you can find so many word-and-picture books in the market for this age group. At the same time, their eagerness to use new words for communication makes their learning unbelievably efficient. The repeated use of a new word gives a toddler a great sense of achievement while an older child may see it as a boring drill.
- More time
Learning a language requires interest, practice and fundamentally, time. While an adult may find it exhausting to consistently study a new language, children can take their time to fully internalise their learning and still rest to recover from any tiredness. The indulgence of having time also allows them to use all their perceptions to feel a language and build a relationship with it.
Challenges of nurturing bilingualism in young children
One of the biggest issues about raising bilingual children is that people often assume bilingualism should happen naturally as long as a child is given a chance to start early. However, challenges may arise at any stage. Here are a few examples:
- Setting up right expectations and staying consistent
Saying children can learn like a sponge disguises the fact that bilingualism does not just happen like magic. Unfortunately, children do not ‘pick up’ words of another language by simply listening to it or watching TV in that language.
When it comes to proper communicating skills, consistent study and practice is the key.
- Finding the right exposure
Exposure is important but simply playing songs or TV shows doesn’t necessarily help the second language learning process. Sometimes it may even lead to negative outcomes if the child becomes frustrated for not being able to understand.
Children are not goal-orientated so they need authentic self-motivation to learn a language well. Their tendency to assimilate with peers can be a big hurdle for them to maintain their acquired bilingualism or become dedicated to their study.
Finding a community or even just a group of children learning the same language fosters children’s motivation and sense of belonging to the language.
- Imbalanced development of the two languages
The amount of exposure and whether or not having the real need to use a language impacts on children’s developments of their languages. It is not a rare occurrence to find a child understanding a language but refusing to speak it.
Raising bilingual children is not an easy task, but definitely a rewarding one. My advice for families is to start with a proper program that truly suits your dear little one(s) and always remember to keep a positive attitude.