I think one of the best gifts that you can give your child is the gift of multi-languages. Raising fluent bilingual or multi-lingual children is not easy for monolinguals like us or even polyglots and does take years of commitment, because kids can lose languages as quickly as they learn them, but childhood is the easiest time to learn languages, so well worth the effort.
"One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood." Pinker
I have so much to say on this topic that I will have to break this post into three parts as it's just too long for one post. I have written about language learning via travel and how languages impact travel before, but have so much more to say, so will be writing much more, a whole series on language learning, as I have time. Out of all the different choices we have made with raising our child, one that I am so pleased about is her advanced reading, writing and speaking fluency in three very different dominant languages and how I see that deeply supporting her life already.
"Give your mind a chance to travel through foreign languages." Neil Simon
WHY LEARN LANGUAGES?
Knowing another language, helps you know and understand another culture like nothing else and that is helpful for a more peaceful planet, so not only are you helping your child ( and many generations ahead if you also pass on the importance of language learning) but also contributing to world peace.
CAN MONOLINGUALS RAISE MULTI-LINGUAL KIDS?
We're monolinguals raising our child as a fluent-as-a-native trilingual/triliterate in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and English,from birth, so proving that it CAN be done. Sure, multi-linguals are common in a few countries, but it is extremely rare in the United States and much of the world.
With English ( or any dominant language) as a dominant world language and your mother tongue, there is less motivation to learn others. One usually finds multi-linguals in countries where there is great motivation. It is not an accident that one finds many multi-linguals in Scandinavia, Netherlands, India and Malaysia, but so few in Spain, U.K., U.S., South America etc.
We were not sure that it could be done when we began, as we have known many fluent bilingual parents who have tried and failed to raise bilingual kids. We're still in progress and it has not been easy. We have high expectations on the level of proficiency we want in each language. I will admit it was an intimidating goal, but now in 20/20 hindsight with a 10 year old polyglot, who is fluent in 3 languages and knows bits of many languages, we are so grateful we did this. They are now part of her and that is a wonderful thing to witness.
We certainly have been helped by deep immersion in Spanish and deep immersion in Chinese through local schools, which also helped immensely with the cultural immersion, but we committed to this goal and began this process before birth.
Now, with a 10 1/2 year old and hearing her speak in Chinese and Spanish, many people have asked what we have done to help her from the start, so I will explain some of our process here.
LANGUAGE LEARNING BEGINS IN THE WOMB
We started at three months pregnant as that is when babies can hear and start to learn language. I read to her every day in English and my husband read to her every day in Spanish. We both picked one book, his was "Little Red Riding Hood" in Spanish.
It was part of our nightly ritutal and bonding process as we nested and waited. We wanted a before womb and after womb continuum of familiarity and hoped to help build a love of language and reading from the start.
ONE PARENT - ONE LANGUAGE METHOD
My husband always talked to her in the womb in Spanish. His parents are fluent Spanish speakers as that was their first language, but alas they did not pass it on to their kids as it was not the way of the fifties. His parents learned English in school and always spoke it at home.
Thankfully, his grandmother from Spain refused to speak English, so he learned some basics from her. His own parents did not consider him a Spanish speaker, but he spoke enough to help our child become fluent. He was working at that point so I also taped him reading the story, so that when he was not around, she could hear him talk to her in Spanish too.
CAN A PARENT WITH LIMITED LANGUAGE SKILLS DO THIS?
It was hard work for him and did not feel natural, but after a while he got used to it. I still remember him pointing to her eyes and saying "Oja" or mouth and saying "boca" etc daily at just a few days old and how she loved it, or a few months later them sharing a favorite open the tab book like "Donde Esta Spot" that she would open with glee at 3 months old.
We all got better at Spanish this way and we adapted to this goal fairly quickly so it soon seemed normal. When he was out with her, he would also talk to her in Spanish. Yes, that probably did seem odd to family and friends that had never heard him speak Spanish, but our goals for our child were more important than what people thought.
"It is, therefore, very important to teach students about the world beyond their own countries. What are the similarities we share and differences without friends around the world? We must understand what motivates those whose cultures and traditions are not our own. To achieve these goals, we must teach our children international education skills which include the learning of languages, cultures and traditions." Margaret Spellings,U.S. Secretary of Education
"The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language." Ezra Pound
HOW WELL IT WORKED
Later when our child was around two, we happened to find an amazing women who we hired to help us with our child's immersion. She was a teacher from Columbia who had been the head of their bilingual program and she was so impressed by the level of our child's Spanish ( like a native speaker from birth without accent),.... especially compared to her father's very weak Spanish, that she talked her sister in Columbia into doing the same thing with her baby.
Both Spanish people and Chinese people seem quite amazed at our child's accent and language ability, so that seems like a good sign. She has already and will continue to surprise many people as she does not look like she can speak, read and write Spanish and Mandarin Chinese well.
She already finds it very useful in her life and wants to learn more languages. Recently in Jordan at Petra, she saw an older couple from Spain who had limited English, trying to communicate their needs with some Jordanians and she eargerly volunteered to help translate. She regularly translates for friends and her parents. Good for her brain and empowering.
PART TWO AND THREE ON HOW TO RAISE A BILINGUAL OR MULTI-LINGUAL CHILD
Coming up next ( part 2 here) I will answer questions like what are the challenges, what are the key advantages and how can you support your child's language acquisition! Then Part 3 includes how multilingual will affect when they first talk, how to do it if you do not speak a word of the language, how to keep balance, what is fluent, and more.
I've already written these posts, but please leave any questions that I can answer here or add to a new post on this topic.