Lena Sandvik in Boston says “I’m amazed that my 15 and 11 year olds have grown up to be completely bilingual. My own accent and those silly, grammatical errors I make in English still haven’t disappeared, even after 15 years in the country.” As easy as acquiring multiple languages is for small children, the single most important factor in language learning is the quantity of spoken language addressed to the child. So, if you worry that you aren’t providing enough, here are a few tricks to boost your superhero’s inherent powers.
• Other kids: Join (or start) a playgroup for the second language. Children of all ages will learn from each other; there simply are no better language teachers than other kids. An added bonus will be that you will connect with other parents of bilingual children.
• Books: Of course you know how vital those precious one-on-one moments are, but remember that they can be infused with language learning also. Books are the most effective tool for teaching language, and so I advise all parents: “Start reading at birth and never stop!” A good way to add to reading time (and make it really personal) is to create a dialogue, encouraging your child’s comments, responses, and elaborations. Talk about what the characters are like and what they might be doing next.
• The right stuff: From books, add video, television and games. There are a multitude of aides towards fluency. In particular, games that use rhyming will make the most of language memory, but “I Spy”, “Bingo” and “Memory” with picture cards will also playfully build vocabulary.
• Sing and dance: Children absolutely love music, but don’t rely solely on recorded music; your own singing, even if it is off-key, will still serve to unite melody and words for your child more surely than any professional recording ever could. Melody is also a fantastic memory aid. Think about how much easier children learn their ABCs when they sing them, compared to just reciting them. And, the combination of music with movement and gestures will enliven it all — as well as provide a nice outlet for squirmy toddlers.
• Tap into their interests: Whatever your child’s enthusiasms may be — whether a love of soccer, dance, or horses — make an effort to ‘involve’ these passions in the minority language. “My 3-year old son is a really big “Bob de Bouwer” (Bob the Builder) fan,” says Martijn Fredriks in Cairo, Egypt. “So now we always watch it in Dutch, and he’s even started speaking in Dutch when he plays with the Bob the Builder toys.”
• Be creative: The trick is to give the child lots to talk about, so draw out that conversation! Encourage them to make up their own stories, play dress-up and pretend in the second language. Even painting, working with sidewalk chalk, or molding clay usually creates more vocabulary than art! Older children may enjoy calling friends or family overseas, especially with a webcam (one such free phone and video service is Skype.com).
• Outside the box: Isabella Vellaccio, a mother in Washington DC, who reached beyond the obvious says, “I wanted my son to hear Italian from someone else than just me, and the playgroups were all during my working hours.” Isabella decided to attend the church coffee after the Italian mass on Sundays. “The older Italian parishioners were thrilled to see him learn Italian.” Needless to say, with that much attention, and Italian cookies, he loved it.
• Baby sitter: Find a college student who speaks the language. Some parents even rent a room to a native speaking student to get more consistent language exposure. Otherwise, try a nanny or an au-pair.
• Visits: The ultimate language boost is to visit the country where it is spoken. Total immersion for a couple of weeks has an amazing effect. And visits from friends or family also provide a valuable boost.
• Enthusiasm: While the quantity of spoken language is the most important factor in learning a language, the second most vital ingredient is the amount of positive feedback the child hears. Early on, when a child is struggling to get those first syllables out, resist the urge to correct…it can actually inhibit language skills.
There is a myriad of ways to ensure that foreign language time is ‘quality time,’ but like any other aspect of parenting: trust your judgment, employ your imagination, and listen very, very well.