I’ve always been interested in language development skills in children, first as an educator and now as a father. Raising a child in a home that uses a mix of languages and dialects can be interesting but also challenging. Here are some of the tricks we have been trying to use to make things a bit easier.
Each parent has their own language:
My wife speaks mainly Chinese (standard mandarin) to our son. I speak English. Granted this is not always the case but we try to make the separation. We do not require that our son respond in one language or the other but we don’t translate for him either, even if he doesn’t understand. For example, if we are playing with color cards and I say, “Can you give me the green card?” my son might ask (in Chinese) “which one?” and while I understand the question I will simply repeat my request in English. It takes some work but eventually he’ll get it right.
This separation of language also has a second layer. My in-laws speak a dialect of Chinese that is very different form standardized mandarin. Our son has begun to pick up all three and for listening this is great. However, when it comes to speaking, having difficulty separating them leads to very interesting but somewhat difficult conversations. What ends up coming out is an impressive mix of everything he knows.
Loads of opportunities:
We go over vocabulary all the time: animal posters, color cards, while shopping at the store. If there is an opportunity to ask him what something is, we have probably asked in one or both languages. The simple truth is that the more you expose your child to, the more they have the chance to absorb. Also, remember that repetition helps build memory. In this case we repeat in different languages. We read his favorite bedtime story in Chinese and the next day we read the same story in English. This builds up recognition between two languages and also begins to build the foundation for what will become translation skills.
We also listen to a lot of music (in a variety of languages). Early on we discovered that our son loves music and dancing. Currently his most requested songs are Dean Martin’s Mambo Italiano, Psy: Gandam Style, and several different songs in Chinese and Cantonese. He dances to all of them and sings key words that he has begun to memorize. We also make a point to download children’s songs in both Chinese and English.
Adding “Some” Technology:
In today’s technology filled world, children’s games on a tablet or mobile phone are pretty much a must for long car rides and as a reward system. Once again, we made a point to find apps that are both in English and Chinese. I have yet to find a good bilingual children’s app but there are loads in Chinese or in English and of course little kids love them. We only give out tablet time as a reward, because let’s face it, our parents drove it into our brains that sitting too close to the TV screen would make us go blind…. That being true or not, it was instilled in all children of my generation and thus my child only gets limited digital access.
Every child is different and learns in different ways. Finding out what works best for your child is part of the fun but remember that when it comes to languages one thing may work in one language but not in another. Mix things up, keep them interested in both languages. And share with other parents… tips, hints, tricks, and new ideas are always welcome.