When and How to Teach Your Kids a Foreign Language
I am bilingual myself, besides during my life, I mastered a couple of more languages. Though I don't have children yet, observing the kids of my relatives and friends, I'm already thinking how to incorporate several languages into my future child's early education. Especially, since I live in the U.S. and my native language is Russian, I would like my child to speak fluently at least English and Russian.
I'ts not a news, that children learn foreign languages much easier than adults. And coming from multilingual culture, I've seen kids who are fluent in 3 or 4 languages, which makes me believe that with proper education you can make your child not just bilingual, but multilingual, which would make his or her life much easier later on.
When to start teaching a child foreign language
Actually, the sooner, the better. The thing is that it was proved that we employ different parts of a brain when we learn the language in childhood than in teenage or adult years. Those who learned the language in infancy, perceive it as a whole without dividing it into grammar and vocabulary, they also perfectly mimic and memorize the pronunciation and intonation of a language. They basically perceive and learn the native and foreign languages the same way.
Here are some examples from real life
My grandparents talked to my mom on 2 different languages from her childhood. My grandpa used Russian all the time, my grandma used Armenian. As a result, my mom mastered both. Actually, until now she speaks to her dad only in Russian, and to her mom only in Armenian.
I am from Ukraine, and the main language I was spoken to as a child was Russian, but since I'm originally Armenian, when I visited my relatives, I constantly was influenced by Armenian-speaking environment. Now I understand Armenian perfectly well though nobody specifically taught me this language. However, since nobody actually talked to me in Armenian, and nobody expected to hear something back from me in Armenian, I perceived the language only by listening. As a result, I understand it perfectly well, but speak very little.
When I was 6 I started going to school, it was right after the Soviet Union collapse. Suddenly Russian lost its power as the most important language, and the national languages of each now independent country started to be used on the state level. Ukrainian schools suddenly started to use Ukrainian as a main language. I went to school even without knowing that such language as "Ukrainian" exists. I remember my first reading classes, when I encountered a couple of unfamiliar letters and later realized how they are read. By the way, I didn't feel any stress or something like that because of not knowing or understanding something. Everything seemed quite natural to me. I don't remember how and when, but in a couple of years I realized that I am fluent in Ukrainian. That's even though Ukrainian was used only in schools (at home and on the street most of the people used Russian). Now I speak and "feel" it the same way as Russian, as native language.
I have many relatives who moved from Armenia to Ukraine with their kids, who were born and raised in Armenian-speaking environment without knowing any other language. It's amazing how quickly (actually in a matter of a couple of months) they became trilingual, using Armenian at home, Russian with their friends and Ukrainian at school or kindergarten.
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How to teach a child a foreign language
Of course you should not explain the peculiarities of grammar and vocabulary to a 3-year old. The learning should occur in a natural way.
It is great if you have a multilingual family where you and you partner, or your parents can speak to a child in different languages. If this is not a case, you can find a babysitter who is fluent in a language which you would like your child to know and ask her to speak to a child only in this language.
You can also help your child learn by using different fun learning tools designed specifically for babies or toddlers, like an award-winning foreign language learning series for babies, toddlers and preschoolers Little Pim.
Are there any disadvantages in teaching a young child foreign language?
I would not say there are disadvantages in teaching your child a foreign language. But there certainly are some things yo should pay attention to.
For instance, most of the kids who are introduced to two or more languages simultaneously start to speak a little later than those who use only one language. It seems as though a child needs some more time to adjust and "digest" all the information which is presented to him.
Also there might be some problems of "mixing" two or more languages when the child will just start to speak. For example, he or she may at first combine words from different languages into one sentence. This flaw will also go away with the time, but to minimize this risk from the very beginning, you should use one simple rule - never mix different languages yourself when talking to a child or in a child's presence. If you start a sentence in one language, continue and finish it in the same language.
I believe that in a contemporary global world, the knowledge of foreign languages is very important. I also believe that being bilingual and developing fluency in at least one foreign language as a child, you will learn more languages much easier in the future. The scientists say that the best age for foreign language learning is before your child is 9. What do you think? Do you have any examples or may be your personal experience in bilingualism or multilingualism?