Our children are born with the ability to become bilingual, if not multilingual. Yet the majority of children will never speak more than one language. And this is true for the majority of Canadian children born of parents who speak another language in addition to English. For most of them, learning English will mean the loss of their parents’ mother tongue. This is most unfortunate if we consider the many social, educational, economic, cultural and political advantages associated with the learning of a second language.
A child or an adult who speaks more than one language is able to communicate with a more diversified group of people. Speaking more than one language allows a person to create deeper connections with people from different cultures, divergent value systems and distant countries. (As an example, think of the cultural universe of the French language, with its European, West Indian, Arabic, African and Canadian constellations, and to the immense cultural complexity it puts us in contact with. The same could be said of any international languages, whether they be Chinese, Spanish or English.)
In addition to serving as a bridge between different cultures, a second language allows a child to communicate across generations. For some children, it makes it possible to communicate with their grandparents and extended families. It deepens their sense of belonging to their parents’ family and culture of origin. And for the parents of these children, it will mean a more effective, natural and intimate communication with their offspring.
With the world becoming increasingly more like a “global village”, with the creation of new means of telecommunication and with the globalization of the world economy, the learning of new languages is becoming essential. A bilingual or multilingual child is certainly at an advantage in this respect.
In terms of intellectual development, research has shown that children who speak more than one language often display more complex and flexible cognitive abilities. Having at least two words to identify an object or a concept, and more than one syntax to communicate their thoughts, these children are generally more aware of the intricacies of languages and of the process of communication.
What can parents do to encourage their children to learn and speak more than one language?
First, it is important for parents to discuss the language development of their children. What are your goals, your fears, and your values in this area? What are the educational resources in your city to help you make an informed decision?
Secondly, and this is by far the most important element, it is essential to provide your child with as many opportunities as possible to use this second language. For bilingual parents, the quality of your relationship is crucial and it is important to always use the same language with your child.
Some suggestions to improve your child’s use of a second language:
* Improve your child’s attempt at communicating (i.e. Child: “Me outside home.” Parent: “Yes it is time to go to the park.”)
* Ask interesting questions (questions that require more than a yes or no answer)
* Read stories regularly and, occasionally, reverse the roles and ask your child to tell you a story
* Teach him or her your favourite songs and nursery rhymes
* Take your child to the library or the cultural centre regularly
* Play language-based games (i.e. simulated conversations on the phone) or role-playing games (i.e. with marionettes, dolls or costumes)
* Be attentive and communicate who your are by your words and gestures
* Make sure that the learning of the language is dynamic, fun and rewarding for your son or your daughter, and for you and others.
Finally, try to put your child in contact with other children who speak the language. Whether it is at the daycare, at the preschool or with other family members or friends, these ongoing contacts with other children who speak the language will help your son or daughter perceive this language as a living and valuable medium of communication.