Raising a Bilingual Child - or Trilingual

January 10, 2013

raising a bilingual or trilingual kid including 2nd language literacy

Can monolingual parents find it easy raising a bilingual child or a trilingual or even more multilingual speaking offspring? We say absolutely yes, anyone CAN raise a bilingual child and defining  "easy" or "hard" primarily depends on attitude, commitment and depth of second  language/literacy.

Recently my friend Winser from China Travel 2.0 asked me how and why we raised our child fluent in Spanish, Mandarin and English as he'd heard most people from western countries find it very difficult to learn Chinese.

We are firm believers in MIT Linguist Pinker’s quote  ”One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood.”

I’ve written a lot about language learning and our process on our blog and a 3 part  series  about how to raise a multilingual child(even if the parents are monolingual).

learning languages makes a global kid- girl and globe

"Learning a new language forces a person to realign his whole system of ideas, to reorganize his entire world view, and to operate a higher level of intellectual mastery. Therefore, foreign language training provides a special intellectual training that cannot be offered by any other discipline." Vygotsky

Learning more than one language is rare in the USA and interestingly more so around the world than we expected. Many people take languages in school, but can’t really use them, except in places where they view it as extremely important like Scandinavia, Holland, Malaysia, India etc. I am a perfect example as I was an  A student in Spanish, French and Latin, but can’t speak any of them. One learns languages best through immersion and using them.

2nd language literacy- learning young is key like these classic kids books in 2nd language

It’s easiest to get languages early when young and many studies show that learning  languages young has many life long benefits like it helps with maths, task-switching capacities, creativity and even prevents cognitive decline in old age.  It broadens ones world in many, many ways. Travel to different countries where no one speaks your language/s helps a child to understand the importance of learning more than one language.

Chinese costume - fun for young Mandarin language learner

"Foreign language learning is rich in the various types of learning or kinds of cognitive functioning (analyzing, discriminating, identifying, categorizing, inferring, including, deconstructing)....Given this principle, it is possible to argue that language study provides abundant practice in mental skills." Herron

We started language education in the womb and luckily we had friends who were native speakers in Spanish and Mandarin. We’ve found dipping into foreign schools ( in
Spain, Penang and China) great for both immersion as well as friendships as we tend to return to these bases over years.

globe and books - languages expand our world

"In a world being reconstructed by information, the importance of communication is paramount to power in the new world view paradigm. As the world shifts from an agricultural/industrial- to an information/service-based economy, the focus is not on military supremacy, but for supremacy in the control and dissemination of information." - Alvin Toffler

We think it is important to learn the dominant languages of the planet in childhood, just as we think learning at least one instrument is important as a foundation. Not only is language really the only way to know a culture, thus teaches us more about world peace and other perspectives, but enhances one’s life in many ways. Both music and languages teach about code breaking and really most everything in life is about code breaking in one way or another ( reading, math etc) and taking on these years-long disciplines in childhood teaches one a work ethic, joy of learning, about process, problem solving and the value of having mastery.

This reminds me of a favorite song by Bobby McFerrin that says: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace, for those who have been trained by it”. A bright child who tends to get things easily, especially needs to be challenged and both languages and two musical instruments have helped us in that way.

Mandarin is a difficult language ( especially reading and writing) even for Chinese kids who are fluent and raised in it ( they spend more years learning it than English speaking kids do in learning theirs). Chinese culture is ancient, fascinating, wise and complex. China is in a blossoming time and will continue to be due to demographics during my child’s entire life, so it was a logical choice for us. When we met friends who were fluent in Mandarin when she was a baby, it just clicked and made sense to take advantage of that.

learning Mandarin in RV in Spain with teacher in Malaysia via skype webcam- homeschool or worldschooling a trilingual

Even before having a child, it was always my goal to raise a multilingual child and one trained deeply in music. I think these disciplines add to life and can be passed down for generations if the value and importance  of them are also passed on. Being monolingual parents and not musically trained, we were at a disadvantage, but she will change that now in our lineage as she sees first hand the advantages and disadvantages of having these skills or not. Being the best at these in the family has allowed her to lead from a very early age and translate amongst different people.

Our daughter Mozart was quite fluent in Mandarin at two, but we found it very difficult to maintain all 3 languages, so we dropped Mandarin for a while. Spanish is probably a more important language for an American to learn and is much easier to do there ( and in Spain) so we focused on those for a while.

bilingual and trilingual kids in Asia learning together

Once she was fluent as a native in Spanish and we saw how enriching that experience was in Spain, we decided to put the focus on Mandarin and Asia. She would like to learn many languages and many instruments, but we’ve put a limit on them in childhood to get them deeply and not split her energy in too many ways.

No one can learn all the languages on this planet, so we’re focused on the most popular and she is interested in learning French next ( which should be a lot easier than written Mandarin and very easy due to her fluency in Spanish). That will allow her to speak to most people on this planet and hopefully have more compassion for other people and ways of  thinking.

Mandarin word for Love- in trilingual kids notebook

We see learning languages as a way to greater peace on our planet, for her and hopefully for the people she touches in her life. It was very obvious to us that knowing Spanish in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries and knowing Mandarin in China made her experience so much deeper. Part of our fun in China was the surprised and happy reaction from locals when they realized they could talk to her.  Makes one wish we could all speak all the beautiful languages of our planet!

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