Nurturing bilingualism: The right environment

This is why the environment matters – here’s what parents can do to nurture bilingualism in their kids

Based on an article from Julia Gabriel Centre

The best motivation for learning a language is necessity: for example, the desire to make needs known at home, to fit in at school or to play with friends. To increase this motivation, we need to make the second language as important as the first for daily living.

Exposure to two languages must be more or less equal for a child to become effectively bilingual. Anyone who learned a language in school and stopped speaking it after the final test knows how true it is that we must use it or we’ll lose it!

Read on to find out more about how you can help your kids become bilingual learners.

Parents often ask whether or not their child can become bilingual through the language programmes in their preschool. The simple answer: you need to spend more time immersed in the language, beyond those set school hours.

If the child is exposed to 5 – 10 hours of a second language (such as Mandarin, Tamil or Malay) during a school week, but is immersed only in English outside this, he will be more confident speaking English.

To improve their speaking ability, make the habit of conversing in the more than one language at home. Your child can learn to pick up phrases, words and even sentence structures from your conversations over time and become more accustomed to the language. The more that your child speaks and listens in the language, the more fluent he will become.

When children are excited, happy and engaged, they learn most easily. Children learn to speak and read characters and words through enjoyable activities and games in a form that holds attention.

So it follows that a creative, fun‐filled environment is key with the most important factor for successful learning being the language model: The parent, the teacher, the guide. The more creative the model, the more children’s attention will be engaged, so more learning will take place.

Let them learn through play, without realizing that they are learning. Create exciting opportunities to use language, like sharing books, stories, songs, games, drama, cooking, theatre, film, music, conversation and daily activities in language, to keep confidence high.

At the same time, do remember that young children have short attention spans: An average of five minutes for two to three years‐old, extending to 10 minutes for three to four years‐old is a long time to focus attention unless your children are really interested in an activity.

So give your children breaks from language tutoring, so that language learning does not become tedious. Interested children learn associatively and sub‐consciously, without realizing that they’re learning.

Tough parenting doesn’t always succeed. Even Amy Chua, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” admits that nothing is more important than the family bonds we form with our children.

Forcing languages on unwilling children will only damage our most important relationships with them. What matters most: knowing our children and understanding what motivates and interests them. If a child feels he has failed or let you down, he is unlikely to want to repeat the experience and, before you know it, resistance to a language develops.

To find this out, stand back and watch your child. What does he gravitate towards? What does she enjoy? Use this information to build a range of activities, in different languages, that you know your children will look forward to and want to communicate in.