Raising a Bilingual Child
By: Gloria Sanchez
The child looked up at his mother. She was waiting for an answer to a simple question: would you like to eat now? A tangle of words went through the boy's brain, until finally he took a deep breath and hoped he'd picked the right set of words.
"Non, mama," he said. "Je n'ai pas faim maintenant."
His mother frowned and replied in English, instantly making him feel embarrassed. "You're not hungry, you mean," she said. "Say, "I'm not hungry right now."
The boy did as his mother said.
Parents raising their children in a bilingual environment face perhaps double the amount of issues pertaining to their child's cognitive development. Many new parents, especially in mixed-heritage households, begin training their children with the best of intentions. As the child is the product of both their cultures, the reasoning goes, so raising him or her with an awareness of both languages is only appropriate. For families living abroad, the choice is possibly even more straightforward: teaching the child to speak the native language yet also raising them to speak the "home" language as well.
Children can feel the strain of so much information that organizing their language skills along two separate and possibly unrelated "tracks" can be a source of frustration, low self-esteem, and poor social skills. Unfortunately, the field of child psychology is only just beginning to research the extents a bilingual upbringing affects a child's development.
The good news is that studies do indicate children from bilingual homes often outperform their classmates on many tests, including the standardized tests needed for entry into universities and colleges. Bilingual children have a greater versatility, it seems, when dealing with new concepts. This agility allows them to more readily embrace many of the questions and problem-solving challenges of such tests. As the child is already well practiced in learning multiple ways of relating to a certain ideas, adapting to new problems causes much less hesitation and mental anxiety.
Probably the most widely practiced of raising a child to speak and understand two languages is to assign each parent their own respective language. This approach is informally known as OPOL: "One Parent, One Language." Parents divide up the languages and then relate to their child exclusively through the use of its idiom. A less intensive method is reserving one language for the home – usually the "minority" language as decided by the parents. As with much of laying the groundwork for strong parenting, establishing a structure and parameters and then sticking with them is crucial to success.
Training a child in two languages, as in one, is also something to be done thoroughly and as early as possible. Child experts point out that most of a child's language absorption is completed around the age of six, so immersing the child at an early age will reap huge dividends down the road.
The difficulties and setbacks are easy to imagine. Children can become confused, as in the introductory vignette, and often feel hard pressed to please both parents. Child psychologists point out the dangers in allowing children to feel at a loss to express themselves, and the potential problems such feelings of inadequacy can cause later in life. To avoid this, experts strongly encourage never disciplining the child but rather gently correcting any mistakes. In gently correcting the child, parents are able to show the languages not in terms of "right" or "wrong" but rather separate but valid ways of communicating.
Learning to communicate between languages - to translate – is also a wonderful way to establish bilingualism. Translating books, television shows, songs, or other popular media allows the child a chance to practice both languages while at the same understanding the importance and use of both. When using the OPOL method, families might play a game where the child acts as interpreter while one parent reads a poem or story. The child then translates for the other parent.
Parents should expect to deal with challenges, and of course medical health issues such as dyslexia and ADHD may also hamper children's ability to grow and develop language skills. As always, it's important to talk to a pediatrician or child psychologist when evaluating a child for any such disabilities.