Bilingualism versus orchestra
Gosh, it is so wonderful to speak in two or even more languages! It makes at least twice as more opportunities to meet interesting people, read inspiring books, share the best jokes. Bilingualism is not even a gallop – it is like a fighter jet flight! It is estimated that there are as many bilingual children as there are monolingual worldwide¹.
It must be said that learning two languages is a hard job. It is a very intensive processing, reorganising, memorising and trying out new skills. The whole process is very much like learning to play two different instruments and I don’t mean thrumming or buzzing, I think about playing the very same tune in absolutely different ways. It is about understanding all those subtleties, between-lines-messages, subtexts, shortcuts etc. In order to gain mastery in playing both instruments one needs years of error and trial, performance, patient listening and spontaneity. Nevertheless, only one instrument at some point will become the most beloved, most intimate tool. I dare to say this will be the language of school friends and colleagues from the teenage years. Luckily, before it happens we, as the parents, have our tune to play and we should play it boldly!
Here are 3 tips on raising a bilingual child:
It is so much easier for a child acquiring the second language when his parents stick to one language only when speaking to their offspring. It doesn’t matter if their native languages are different. A child needs to separate languages clearly in order to speak fluently and not to mix them.
It is not recommended by both Polish and English speech and language therapists to use more then one language by a parent when speaking to a child. The rule of thumb is one parent – one language. I know many Polish parents here in Scotland who mix their native language with English words and sentences in order to support their child’s bilingualism. Kids need to clearly distinguish both or more languages in order to be fluent when using them. Consistency paradoxically helps a child to speak fluently and switch between different languages. The opposite attitude may result in confusion or problems with keeping up within the second language. Although it is definite that at some stage a child finally chooses his first language (usually the one of his peers) but the process ideally happens in teenage years when both languages are well acquired.
It is never to late to learn a new language and the most efficient way to acquire it is to learn as naturally as possible. Most of the children raised in Polish families here in Scotland begin to learn English at the age of 3 or 4 when attending nursery or kindergarten. At this age they usually have the firm base of the native language and therefore learning English becomes much easier. A child needs time to listen, translate and use new words and the process should ideally happen in the child’s own pace. Parents do not have to worry that their child might look confused or withdrawn when confronted with the new language for the first time. Similarly, it is not uncommon for children to go through so called ‘silent period’ when even their native language seems to be a little bit of a struggle. Once kid distinguishes both languages, the ride begins! A little student is learning instinctively starting with the words that have meaning and are immediately needed to express a request. There are no grammar rules, hesitations, idioms in the first efforts to communicate in a new language. Instead, a child is using the language as a tool to become a member of a new gang.
Learning any language is not only about the words, it is also about the way we use them when having conversations, telling jokes, reading between lines, understanding idioms, reading poetry and the linguistic heritage. All these nuances are so much easier to grasp in our native tongue as we usually learn organically when parents read books to us, tell stories, talk to each other, sing rhyme songs. Therefore I usually encourage parents to enrol their children into the Polish Saturday School where pupils learn not only how to read and write in their native language but also have an opportunity to hear more on Polish history, geography, culture and beautiful traditions. Although parents are the prime source of home language, the conversations they usually have are mostly limited to the everyday situations. Much more can be learnt when listening to the old legends or reading classic literature. Luckily, it is so much easier in today world to support greater fluency and control over functional language of the bilingual child. Listening to the audio-books, meeting peers in playgroups, using free digital resources available online , bilingual books– these are very convenient and attractive tools.
Speak to your child in your native languge since his birth the way you would choose to learn him playing the instrument you feel best. Why? Beacuse nobody will do it better with all that natural engagement, joy and love that you give to you childr every day. It is not easy to be bilingual, at least in some situations when words can’t express the real meaning. On the other hand when having two languages at bay we can set on a fantastic journey to get to so many destinations. Happy are those children who have the opportunity to meet and understand more that one culture.
text: Agata Lesiowska
photo: Agata Lesiowska
Dual Language Development and Disorders: A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning, Paradis J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011).. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.