There was a time when educators believed that a second language should be introduced in secondary school. Learning a second, or third language was considered a thing for grown-ups to do. That time is long gone! Today there is increasing pressure on children to be fluent in both English and Mandarin from as young an age as possible. Parents now understand that exposing children to a second language from as early as they can will make the acquisition of that language easier on everyone. But there still remains some concerns about how children will cope when faced with two languages.
Most recent research in the United States suggests children can become equally effective in a second language. Further, balanced bilinguals who are equally strong in two languages tend to do better in I.Q. tests. They are thought to benefit from having their thinking stretched, and awareness expanded, early.
Children should begin learning a second language as early as possible. So says Colin Baker, professor of bilingual education at the University of Wales and author of An Encyclopaedia of Bilingualism and Bilingual Education. We learn language best before the age of six so parents should take advantage of these key language learning years, from 0-6 years old. From birth a child’s senses are absorbing the sounds around him. His brain is storing the complex patterns that make up language and his windows of language are open wide to absorb it most easily. After the age of six our ability to learn language decreases as we get older, as anyone who has struggled to learn a language as an adult will attest to!
One common worry parents may have about exposing their child to two languages is whether or not this will confuse a child and may even result in a delay in language development.
Prof Baker believes that a child will not be confused by two languages as long as the two are separated initially, suggesting that parents and teachers use only one language at a time. Recent research at Antwerp University shows that two and three year-olds are able to understand that they are using two distinct languages. What can lead to disruptions in language development are radical changes in the language environment. This can happen when parents suddenly panic that their child is not getting enough exposure to Mandarin and suddenly start speaking in only Mandarin at home, this may sound extreme, but I have know this to happen! It is therefore important that parents provide systematic exposure to both languages.
Language is Caught not Taught
The fact that language is caught not taught is especially true in our early years when we still have the amazing ability to absorb the language or languages that surround us. We need to be exposed to a language to be effective in using it.
Parents often ask whether or not their child will be effectively bilingual based on the Mandarin programme in their preschool and the answer is very simple, children will be effectively bilingual if their exposure to both languages is more or less equal. If your child is only exposed to 5 – 10 hours of Mandarin a week and the rest of their lives are conducted in English, then they will be more effective and confident communicating in English. If you want to improve their ability to communicate in Mandarin you need increase their exposure to it. This is true not only with speaking and understanding the spoken language but also reading and writing. Children will need exposure to the print and opportunities to write.
My 4 year old daughter, who delights in the fact that she is the only member of the household who can speak Mandarin loves to write on the whiteboard in her room and ‘teach’ us Chinese words. Although my Mandarin is dismal (due to a severe lack of exposure during my formative years!) I can still tell that the swishes on the board and the strange vowel sounds she is making would be understood by no-one. However I do have faith that one day they will both take on a recognizable form.
For this reason I still make it a point to sit and ‘read’ through the Chinese reader she borrows from school. Based on the pictures I tell the story as I understand it, in English. I cannot provide her with exposure to the language but I can help her understand that the words and meaning can be recorded using different characters and they tell the story in writing. A few months ago she surprised me by knowing instantly the difference between Japanese and Chinese. That is because she is familiar with Chinese characters from the storybooks we ‘read’ together.
Use It or Lose It
Anyone who learnt a language in school and after the final test never went near it again knows how true this is!
Two factors have been identified as being vital in creating the ideal learning environment. First of all we need motivation to learn. The best motivation is the need to communicate in a language, for example the desire to make needs known at home or to fit in at school. Then we need interest. An interested child will learn sub-consciously, without realising that he’s learning. Children learn to speak and read characters through enjoyable activities and games that capture interest as long as the content and form hold attention.
It is very easy for overenthusiastic parents to damage a child’s motivation and interest through unrealistic expectations. If a child feels he has failed or let you down he is naturally unlikely to want to repeat that experience and before you know it a resistance to the language can develop. It is important to remember young children have short attention spans: An average of five minutes for two to three year-olds, extending to ten minutes for three to four year-olds.
So what do I do, as a parent, to help my child on the path to bilingualism - to enable him to become equally comfortable and effective with two languages?
Huang Ying, my good friend and colleague, is a Mandarin Teacher from Beijing, the wife of a wonderful Englishman and mother to Jim, a lovely boy who is effectively Bilingual and has been since he started speaking. From when Jim was born Huang Ying has spoken to him in Mandarin and it still amazes me to see him effortlessly switch from Mandarin with his Mum to English with his Dad or friends, even in mid-conversation. When asked what her advice is in creating a Bilingual home she shared the following tips:
From Speaking and Listening to Reading and Writing
Every language, regardless of how it is structure, is made up of four basic principles, speaking, listening, reading and writing. These principles are intrinsically linked but are also very different. While you can be good at one and poor at another all must be mastered to be fluent in a language. Reading and writing are natural extensions of spoken language and if a child is exposed to a literacy rich environment they will more readily pick up reading and writing. This is true of any language.
Exposing children to Chinese storybooks and characters through subtitles and games will increase their awareness of the written language. If you do not read Chinese and therefore cannot model reading at home then look for fun ways in which to expose your child to the written language. Chinese cultural arts programmes which involve calligraphy, Chinese brush painting, Chinese traditional stories and idioms are a wonderful way to bring not only the spoken but also the written language alive.
When children are excited and happy they learn most easily. So it follows that a relaxed, fun-filled environment is key. The final ingredient and the most important link in the process of learning a language is the person who models that language: The parent, the teacher, the guide. The more creative the model, the more the child will become imaginatively involved and learn subconsciously, through play. There is no room for destructive criticism or negative comments. What the child needs is praise for effort, celebration of success, joy and laughter. If the learning process itself is a joy, it will lead to a lifetime of enjoyable communication.
In summary to create effective bilingual environment children need to be: