I’m going to assume that you believe in the benefits of growing up in more than one language: I am going to pretend you already know the enormous value of improving memory, creativity, problem solving, cognitive reasoning and executive functioning.
I am going to assume that you do not want your child to be blind to the social differences of other cultures and languages, that you believe in raising them to embrace diversity and want them to be adaptable, culturally sensitive little people.
That being said, even if we can all agree on the value and importance of raising a child in more than one language, often the next step is the hardest – What am I going to do about it? Where will they go to learn it? What language should we focus on? And what approach will we subscribe to in teaching another language?
Yes. Once you have decided on a multilingual/bilingual upbringing, that is where the hard part really starts.
Who should do it? The truth is that in our education system, you cannot leave it up to your child’s primary/high school to teach them another language because I believe that a child’s capacity and motivation for language learning severely decreases after age 8. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it is harder and our own personal experiences in both school and afternoon programmes support this. Children’s lives become busier the older they get and they need to understand why they are learning something in order to stay motivated. Often they cannot see the value of learning a language merely as an academic pursuit.
I also believe that languages are taught badly at school. Teachers rely on mixing the language they are teaching with the language the child understands, and the result is that the child has no necessity to engage with the target language in a meaningful way. How many of us learnt a language at school and yet cannot string a sentence together in that language today?
But even if you got a teacher who spoke exclusively in the target language and tried to completely immerse the students in his/her language, classes are too big and lessons come out of a textbook so children are not forced to speak the target language to each other and are bored by the lesson structure.
So it is really up to the parents to get your children learning languages and it can start as early as birth with your choice of nanny and preschool. Because young children do not have the same time constraints or inhibitions that older children have, learning languages before the age of 8yrs is much easier. So parents need to seriously consider the nursery school that they choose, as well as the caregivers that surround your child in these early years of life. If the caregivers around them can speak exclusively in their mother-tongue, your child will grow up bilingual. If you are able to send them to a school that incorporates language effectively into their education routine, even better. If you can have both – do!
Then to the question of which language: It is important to remember that no one language is more important than another, and by speaking two or more languages, your child will already be reaping the benefits of multilingualism. But if you are debating which language to introduce to your child consider:
- Heritage (what language do you, your parents or your grandparents speak?):
Having close family with whom you can relate to is a great way to introduce and sustain language learning.
Consider the language most widely spoken around you, or accessibility to a new language. Do you have neighbours who speak a different language, language programmes in your area, or a dominant African language that your child will have opportunity to practise?
Consider the global economy and potential work environments your child might one day find themselves in. Try to give them a language that is recognised globally, or spoken by a lot of people internationally – these could include Chinese, Spanish and French.
In our multilingual preschool, we selected three languages that we believe will be useful to the next generation of South African children (Chinese, English and isiZulu). These languages represent three completely separate language groups, making them an incredible foundation for future language learning: Chinese is part of the Sino-Tibetan group of languages, notable for its use of tones. isiZulu is Nguni language, notable for its clicks and part of the Niger-Congo group of languages that stretches across Sub-Saharan Africa. English is an Indo-Germanic language that straddles both Latin and Germanic languages in a unique way. These languages also sit at interesting cross-roads both socially and economically. isiZulu is the largest first language in South Africa, and is spoken as a second language by almost 60% of our country. In addition to being spoken by the largest people group in the world, Chinese is also the fastest growing second language globally, meaning that people outside of China are choosing to learn Mandarin due to the growing demand of business relations with that nation, Africa first among them.
When we teach language, we also emphasise the culture associated with that language and our classrooms are culturally rich places where music, food and fun intersect in very memorable and engaging experiences. Each of the three languages are facilitated by only native speakers in a dedicated space where only the target language is spoken.
Once you have made your choice of language and decided on a person/school who is going to provide the language environment to your child, what approach should you take to guarantee effectiveness and ongoing motivation?
The most effective and quickest (although by no means easiest), is the ‘One Person One Language’ (OPOL) approach. This involves sticking strictly to the target language without compromise. It’s how babies learn language for the first time, and if I dumped you in the middle of France it would be how you learnt survival-French before you died of starvation. When you create an environment and a necessity, language learning can really occur. But there are other tools that can be used to effectively teach language, including FUN PLAY. Again, this isn’t something we’ve never heard of: we know play is the ‘learning’ of children and so if you want something to stick, make it fun! Other ideas include incentivising learning and speaking with a reward or treat, which is what parents have been doing to incentivise good behaviour since we were all cavemen. Classes in whatever setting should also be small, so children have the opportunity to practice and repeat everything they learn in the lessons.
The truth is, raising a child in more than one language is not impossible, especially in South Africa, a country with 11 official languages. There is much opportunity, we only lack the resources and willingness from parents.
Although taking the first step towards multilingualism may in fact be a daunting one, as a mom of 3 trilingual little people, there is little that gives me as much joy as seeing them converse with others in another language. I know that the money, time and effort I have devoted to raising them multilingually will pay off – maybe they will only see the value in years to come, but I will never regret the investment I have made into their futures. They are well on their way to becoming clever, sensitive and adaptable adults and that makes me super proud.