The importance of early years bilingualism

This is an issue at the top of the to-do lists of many parents, along with music, sport, school and many other activities that are thought important for children nowadays. The British Council in Madrid, an education centre established to bring English education to those Britons living abroad as well as many local families who want their children to grow up bilingual, will host the II Jornada de Bilingüismo en Edades Tempranas (the Second Conference of Early Years Bilingualism). Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian psychologist with a specialization in cognitive and language development in children, will speak at the conference about the benefits of bilingualism. 

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Ellen believes that the fact that children can absorb and assimilate information very easily means that the early years are the ideal time to learn another language. She also supports the theory that learning a second language has great cognitive advantages that will help the brain stay healthy and prevent early degeneration. She also highlights other, more mundane, advantages like helping people living in a global world and giving them those extra tools for survival in our modern economy.

In a previous conference held by the Spanish branch of the British Council, a bilingual educator, Alexander Sokol gave some pointers to parents who wanted to bring up their children bilingually. Some of them are things that I have already mentioned in Bilingual Parenting as being important for the relation between bilingual parents and children, like making sure that you are not just pointing at things and saying the name, just teaching vocabulary, but speaking in simple sentences in context. Even if you have just started speaking to your child in the second language, using it in a meaningful context will make things much easier.

Sokol also believes that all approaches are okay if they work for your family. He suggests that parents shouldn’t worry so much about “teaching” their children, because he thinks that their function is not so much academic as it is educational in a playful way. Any activities and language acquired through the parents can then be reinforced if necessary at school or with private tutors.

He points out that before undertaking any “language” activities with your children, parents should think about their reasons for wanting their children to learn that language, living in the country, having family abroad, or they just want them to speak a foreign language. There are other variables to take into account like age of the children, previous knowledge, resources available, etc.

Sokol has suggested some ground rules that may help us plan our strategy:

1. Start with sentences rather than single words.
2. Translate without translating (explaining in simpler language, things they may know, use body language to explain concepts)
3. Be patient and don’t expect too much (remember the silent period)
4. Subtle corrections.
5. Take advantage of those moments when they are doing their favourite activities.
6. Give them time to get ready to speak (silent period)
7. The best resources are their environment and their games.

Alexander Sokol is bilingual, from Riga, he learnt to speak Russian and Lithuanian at the same time, as most people in the city. He also learnt English and speaks to his children in English.

These two people are, in my opinion, great examples of people who support bilingualism in the early years, and like Alexander Sokol, there are more and more  people educating their children in a language that is not their native language at home. Teachers and tutors can support the work done by the parents at home, but at the end of the day, the parents are the people who spend more time with the children and there lies the key to success, the amount of time and the quality of activities in the language we want them to learn.

 

 

Comments

  1. Great blog! Thank you for sharing your experiences. In a few weeks time (or even days actually) I am going to become a mum and as a Polish-English-German translator I was considering whether bilingual parenting wouldn’t be an option in our case. After reading the books that you have recommended and your blog, together with my husband we have decided to speak to our baby girl not only in Polish, but also in English. Do you mind if I share a link to your blog on my blog on translation? There are few materials available on bilingual parenting in Polish, so I have written two posts on this topic and one of them is going to cover interesting books and blogs on bilingualism.

    • Hi Gabriela,
      Congratulations! I think it´s a great idea to speak to your little one also in English. Please, share on your blog, thanks!

  2. You can get a program that has an holistic approach to it. One such useful program in my experience is Foreign Languages for Kids by Kids. They have a dice game, DVDs, physical workbook and online workbook. My nephew loved them and was easy to grasp. Hope it helps – http://foreignlanguagesforkids.com

  3. Raising a bilingual child is so important and if a child has any speech or language difficulties, many people will advise parents to stick to one language but that is NOT good advice. For more info, check out http://www.speechtherapytalk.com/bilingualism-in-language-development.html

    • Thanks for your support Bridget, it is interesting as well that language therapists can be supportive of bilingualism!

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