Columnist Rachel Beresford asks if raising bilingual children is worth the effort?
A friend of mine went to a children’s birthday party recently, with her husband and 18-month-old son. She came home with worry lines etched onto her forehead. “Don’t tell anyone,” she told me, her voice rising in panic. “But I’m really upset. The other kids seemed to know so many more words than our son. Do you think it’s because we’re trying to raise him to be bilingual? Do you think we’ve confused him completely?”
I poured my friend a glass of wine and suggested we turn to the experts, because even a quick flick through the hundreds of books and articles written on this subject is reassuring. My friend is certainly not alone and, if you are worrying about the same issue, neither are you. It seems every bilingual family on the planet has studied it at some point. And, of course, we live in Colombia where it is not hard to find English speakers married to Spanish speakers – families who serve ajiaco with french fries and panic quietly when their child says, “I have three years-old.”
Firstly, my friend’s child is a boy and boys are known to develop their language skills a little later. Secondly, those-in-the-know seem to be growing out of that old-fashioned “blame culture” which used to berate parents for confusing their children with two “native” languages and are now encouraging them, gently, to stick at it. Yes, your kids will probably come out with the dreaded Spanglish in the beginning but it is likely they will have separated their idiomas by three or four-years-old. They will also know when they are supposed to be speaking each language and to whom.
|Many cross-cultural parents will recognise that first flush of guilt when a child begins to utter Spanglish|
Nonetheless, many cross-cultural parents will recognise that first flush of guilt when a child begins to utter Spanglish; the fear of causing confusion, the potential late development – basically, a whole catalogue of worries that only add to the hardly-a-walk-in-the-park-anyway responsibility of child rearing.
So why bother? Well, aside from needing your child to survive in the countries he or she may move between (and communicate easily with every member of the family), scientists are definitely on the side of “parents who try” when it comes to raising bilingual kids.
Our friends in white coats have long insisted that those who speak two languages and use them regularly (particularly if both were learned in early childhood) are much less likely to suffer mental decline in old age.
|Scientists believe a bilingual child’s executive function will experience accelerated development – even before he or she can speak|
Being bilingual can also boost concentration and mental focus. One British study found that speaking two languages changes how the brain responds to sound. Bilinguals in a noisy environment, researchers discovered, are better able to tune into important information and block out distractions – thus improving their ability to pay attention.
Best of all though is what’s known as “executive function.” That’s the part of our brain that allows us to plan, prioritise activities, organise, shift our focus and suppress habitual responses. Because monitoring and separating two languages requires this part of the brain, scientists believe a bilingual child’s executive function will experience accelerated development – even before he or she can speak.
So, how do you do it? Some families choose the traditional one parent to one language approach. This requires determination and discipline. Let’s face it, kids are clever – even the most hopeful linguists warn that children are quick to realise which language is essential to survival and which can be quietly put aside. A child living in Colombia, for example, with a Colombian father and an English mother who speaks passable Spanish, could be forgiven for thinking English was not worth his while – even if his devoted and dedicated mother refuses to utter even an hola when they are alone.
|Let’s face it, kids are clever – even the most hopeful linguists warn that children are quick to realise which language is essential to survival and which can be quietly put aside|
The other option, then, is to have different languages for different locations – English in the home, Spanish outside – although this means both parents need to have a good level of fluency. This approach is often recommended to combat a child’s natural laziness at the thought of learning two languages – it forces them to use both in order to “survive.”
Which approach is better? The scientists caution that improved executive function only tends to happen when a child is accustomed to using both languages at the same time. In other words, the effect is greater if they use both English and Spanish at home, for example, rather than English at home and Spanish at school.
Either way, it seems we are all in agreement that trying to raise your child to be bilingual is nothing to feel guilty about. He or she may seem a little out of sorts at the children’s birthday parties of today, but the dinner parties of tomorrow will be a whole different story.
Rachel Beresford is CEO of Executive English Training. In this, her regular column, she explores various aspects of living in more than one language.