Living in South Florida with its diverse mix of cultures, I often meet parents who want to teach their children their heritage language. These parents want their kids to understand and speak the language to be able to communicate with their grandparents and relatives who still live “back home”, and understand and appreciate their cultural heritage. How can you teach your child another language when everything around you is primarily in English?
“Just speak to the child in your language,” is the advice you hear from friends and neighbors.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? After all, this is how we humans acquire our native tongue – by observing the natural interaction between parents, immediate family members and caretakers, and by being spoken to in one language since birth. Somehow, the human brain just figures out the grammar of the language and by the age of 5 a child can speak its native tongue fluently.
If you speak to some of these parents trying to teach their children a minority language in a predominantly English-speaking environment, you will learn that raising a bilingual child is not as easy as it sounds. Researchers determined that there are certain things parents can do to ensure their success on the path of teaching their offspring a minority language, and here are some of the suggestions.
Talk to the child only in the minority language, no matter what. The dominant language, English, in our case, will penetrate every aspect of the child’s life, especially once they start going to school, since most of the input such as school, television, media, and surrounding environment are in English. Therefore, it is important to create as much input in minority language as possible.
Prepare to speak the minority language before your child is born. If both parents speak the minority language, they should switch to speaking only that language at least six weeks prior to the arrival of the newborn, as researchers say that it takes approximately that long for this type of communication to become a habit. As a native Russian speaker who has lived in the U.S. for thirteen years, I can relate: sometimes it is easier for me to express an idea in English rather than in Russian!
Provide your child with materials in the minority language, for example, books and cartoons. By recognizing that your minority language is a medium to understanding these, the child will learn the value of the language. However, it is recommended not to rely on television as a major input for the second language, as human interaction remains the most effective medium for teaching language skills to a child. Having your child attend a language immersion program in your area, where he can be spoken to in the second language might greatly help parents in the education process.
Become a part of the network of other people with children who speak the minority language. If your child realizes that there is a community of people who speak this language, it will help him understand that it is more than just a language spoken at home. If there are any language programs in your area, attending those classes will help develop language skills and nourish the love for learning it.
Raising a bilingual child in an environment where one language is dominant is no easy task. Is it worth a try? Definitely. I have met a lot of adults who regret the fact that their parents did not teach them their heritage language.
Here are some additional resources on raising a bilingual child:
Do you have any tips on how to raise a bilingual child? What works for your family? Please feel free to share your experiences, challenges, and advice!