Many people, especially those who have enrolled or are thinking of enrolling their children in a bilingual school believe in the benefits of being bilingual or multilingual. Research and experience show us that there are, in fact, many cognitive, social, and even financial benefits to being bilingual or multilingual. However, the path to speaking more than one language is rarely simple.
Children are often presumed to have an easier time learning other languages. There are, in fact, some things that come easier to children such as pronunciation and accents. As a Montessorian, I would say this is because of their absorbent mind. I am constantly amazed at how precisely children in my class can repeat back to me with an impeccable accent words they have heard me speak. Very young children, such as those in our toddler class, can also have fewer inhibitions about speaking or understanding another language. However, even as early as 3 years of age, children become much more self-aware and aware of the world around them and can become more self-conscious about speaking another language or concerned about not understanding each and every word which is being spoken to them.
While early exposure to a second language and those who speak other languages offers benefits for pronunciation and cultural awareness, children can have all the same difficulties, fears, confusion, etc. that you most likely have felt or feel as an adult learning or speaking a language which is not your native tongue(s).
As with any kind of learning, parental attitudes and implication in the learning process can make a huge difference. Here, then, are some suggestions for how parents and families can support language learning.
- Above all, make sure your child has a large quantity of quality input in their mother tongue(s)
Research has shown that this helps not only with language development in their mother tongue, but also with other languages being learned. This means
- Reading regularly with your child to encourage development of their mother tongue(s) and to model fluent reading. Multilingual Children’s Association says, “Frequent book reading leads to more advanced language skills.” It does not matter which language the books are read in.
- Talking about books with your child – the characters, plot, and what they liked or didn’t like.
- Using rich and varied language with children, including the precise vocabulary for what you are talking about. Even with very young children we can use rich and varied language. Once the child has learned 50 words, he/she can learn about 9 words/day.
- Encouraging conversation in the child’s mother tongue(s).
- Reading for pleasure yourself in your mother tongue. You are your child’s best role model when it comes to enjoying reading.
- Attitude matters! Make sure you are demonstrably enthusiastic and positive about learning English or French both for your child and for yourself if you are not fluent.
Language learning is exciting and fun, but it is not always easy. You can help your child by
- Talking about language and also your own joys and struggles in learning other languages. Encourage your child during difficult times to persevere and show how you do the same. Parents can model this behavior and help children learn how to continue and persevere.
- Learning/practicing speaking the language yourself/having fun learning with your child or at the same time as your child. If you are not fluent in the language your child is learning, take classes, practice, enjoy music/films (more below on this). Allow your child to see you learning, struggling, persevering, enjoying, making mistakes, etc. in this language with them or others. A child learns a “foreign” language all the more readily when he knows that his parents speak this language themselves and/or that they are interested in learning this language!
- Be aware of negative language attitudes the child might hear. Hearing things like “British people are not very good at learning languages” or “French is not a useful language” or “My French is very bad. It is such a difficult language” can be more harmful than you may imagine. From the website bilinguisme-conseil.com – “On the other hand, an environment open to national borders, open to other cultures, people and their languages, is stimulating for a child who is learning a foreign language. Anything that can make a child or a young person feel that there are other modes of expression, other lifestyles outside France, and that his parents are curious to know them, without bringing value judgment, adds to his motivation to learn that other language.”
- Spend time with children and adults who speak the other language.
We are so fortunate to have such a rich linguistic community here at La Maison des Enfants. Make sure you are taking advantage of this. Work to establish family friendships across linguistic boundaries. Be a good role model and socialise with speakers of the additional language as well as of other languages.
- Compliment and encourage your child on using the language he/she is learning, but do not push the child to use the language especially in the presence of friends or relatives.
Talk to your child’s teachers about what words/phrases your child has been using/learning so that you might be able to follow up at home with leading questions or phrases.
- Increase exposure with books, CDs, films, holidays
A great way to share the language as a family and to increase exposure is by reading books, listening to music, watching films and even going on holiday where the language is spoken. You can also take your child to places where the second language is used, such as restaurants, stores, and libraries.
I personally believe that listening to music of any kind can also help with language learning. Children with an ear for music tend to have an ear for languages as well.
- Think about and explore together the places, cultures and countries where the language is spoken
At La Maison des Enfants we are starting to do cultural projects in the classes related to some countries/cultures where English is spoken to get the children excited about the language. We are starting with the United States of America. Similarly you can view or participate in music and dancing reflective of the countries who speak the language, explore topics of interest to your child in countries that speak the language. (For example: athletic teams, dancers, instrumentalists, artists, singers, historical events, etc.)
- Understand and don’t become anxious about the silent phase or about mistakes.
Another way that you can help your child is to remember that comprehension always precedes production. Think about your own learning of another language and how long it took you to feel comfortable and capable of expressing yourself in that language. Don’t correct your child’s additional language. Making mistakes is an important part of learning.
Above all remember that language learning is not automatic, even for children. The more enthusiasm, role modeling, and rich exposure with regards to language learning in general and also learning additional languages, the better.
Here are a two resources in Montpellier
The French American Center
Classes in English for children and adults and French classes for adults and social/cultural events and language exchanges.
English language bookshop and cafe. They also host language exchange events as well as events for parents and children in English.