It is beneficial to teach your child multiple languages from the moment they are born, even if you aren’t fluent in the other languages you’re instilling in them. As I have lived in multiple countries and travel regularly, I’ve often said that in today’s world, true power comes not from position, but in the ability to communicate. Why wouldn’t we give our kids a leg up to be able to wield that power?
As the world grows smaller thanks to the Internet, satellite offices, shared work spaces, multi-culturalism, people marrying across racial, religious and geographical lines, etc., this issue of languages spoken (or not spoken, as the case may be) is at the forefront of how we navigate the world we live in now more than ever before.
We understand that work, life and love opportunities are not limited to our home soil. Rather, we are aware that those opportunities are spread throughout the globe – as far and wide, in fact, as the Internet (and low cost airlines) can take us.
Equipping our children with the tools to communicate in more than one language gives them a boost in life, and opens up entirely new places for them to explore – not just for personal enrichment, cultural exploration and sampling great new cuisines – but for job opportunities as well. In fact, even the businesses in your very own hometown often now require multiple languages to be spoken by employees, because partnerships with companies outside of our bubble are more and more common.
Language is the currency of the world, and the more you speak, the richer you are.
Some countries require their children to study more than one language in school for this very reason, but often that curriculum kicks in later than is ideal for a developing mind. The conclusion one can draw is that the best way to do this is at home from day one. Growing up bilingual used to only happen to children of that rare couple who spoke more than one language at the home, or if you grew up in a place where a minor dialect was spoken. Due to family units increasingly coming from a variety of backgrounds, this is happening more frequently, but surprisingly not as much as you might expect.
At this point, few people dispute that speaking multiple languages is an asset, which means that instead of asking “should we do this,” the question really becomes “how should we do this?” As someone who is only fluent in English, yet is part of a family (my husband, my daughter and myself) in which we regularly and consistently speak three different languages, I had to ask this question myself. There are many opinions as to what the right approach is to teaching your child multiple languages. Through research, conversation, interviews and my own observation over the last 21 months of raising my little girl, I can now definitively say that the only right way is to simply commit to doing it, without excuses. Everything else is just rhetoric.
A bit of background, so you understand where I’m coming from. I grew up in America only speaking English, even though my mother is from Taiwan and English is her third language (Taiwanese is her first and Mandarin Chinese is her second). I regretted being unable to communicate with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, let alone the rest of the Taiwanese people, every time I went to Taiwan as a child, which we did quite often. I decided to move to Taiwan and learn Chinese when I finished university, which I did. Unfortunately I never quite became fluent, and having been gone from Taiwan for 13 years prior to having my own child (and rarely speaking it with my mother even after learning it), my Chinese got worse and worse. Even so, I vowed to teach Chinese to my baby, to give her that part of her culture that was never given to me. Plus, what a useful language to know!
But how was I supposed to do this? When Xena was born, I started speaking Chinese with her immediately. It was fairly easy, and helped me refresh my Chinese, which at this point was barely above a beginner level. One word at a time, we learned together. Since she wasn’t communicating back, my limited Chinese skills were plenty sufficient. I pointed to a dog and said “gou” with as convincing a Chinese accent as I could muster, and she nodded and smiled. I was a genius.
As she’s gotten older, and has started speaking herself, it’s become more difficult for me. More and more, I’ve been coming across vocabulary I don’t have (thank you, Google Translate!), realizing I don’t know the correct grammar for a sentence, etc. Realizing I had to stay one step ahead of the baby at every turn, I downloaded multiple Chinese language apps and practiced daily. Once she had the attention span to watch videos, I only let her watch them in Chinese (or Hebrew, my husband’s language). We got books in Chinese and I re-learned with her.
My husband’s Hebrew is fluent though not native, as his native Hebrew-speaking Israeli mother also chose to favor English at home with him as a baby (it was a common thing in 1980s America). He lived on and off in Israel throughout his life, and served in the Israeli Army, so now he’s able to communicate fairly flawlessly. He speaks Hebrew to our baby and has since birth.
Conventional wisdom states that a baby needs to be exposed to a language 30% of the time in order to learn it, thus allowing for 3 or 4 languages to be learned (30+30+30+10). I primarily speak Chinese with her, my husband speaks Hebrew with her, and my husband and I speak English to each other. The baby is 21 months, understands each language and speaks all three. It really is fascinating to watch her soak up each word and retain them all, while recognizing that multiple words mean the same thing in different languages.
We spend a good portion of the year traveling around Europe for work, so she’s heard a variety of other languages since she was two months old, including Bulgarian, Hungarian, French, Spanish and German. She definitely prefers Spanish (her eyes light up when she hears it spoken and she’ll stop whatever she’s doing to look around and find the source), so we have decided to introduce that as language number 4, the language that uses the last 10% of the language learning capacity. Who knows if this current information is true, but it seems to make sense to us, and – not at all shockingly – she now peppers in the occasional Spanish word or phrase alongside her trio of languages, while not replacing any of the words she already knows. We want to continue to focus on four languages as a baby/toddler, with the idea that this exposure will help bolster her brain to be able to pick up an endless number of languages as she grows up and continues to develop.
We’ve been met with a surprising amount of criticism along the way, however, but we are undeterred and sticking to our guns. The progress we’re seeing is simply undeniable, and – frankly, even if there was no proof – sometimes you have to trust your gut.
Interestingly, the criticism comes mostly from family members, and the occasional know-it-all. We’ve heard a plethora of comments, such as:
“You shouldn’t speak a language with your baby unless you’re a native speaker.”
“You’ll give them bad habits and a bad accent.”
“Why are you speaking Chinese/Hebrew with her? That’s odd.”
“You’ll confuse the child.”
“That’s too many languages.”
“You’re not consistent enough.”
“They will start to speak later.”
“They’ll have difficulty communicating in preschool when they don’t speak the same language as others.”
“It’ll make her life more difficult.”
“They don’t need (insert language here). English is enough.”
Sadly, I could go on.
We’ve also been given this well-meaning piece of advice often: “The most important thing is that you be consistent in which language each parent speaks, so that they only associate one language with one parent, and make sure you consistently speak only that language.”
To be clear, I don’t claim to be an expert in linguistics, nor in child development. I know what I know, what I research and what I see myself. Thus far, as I said, the results speak for themselves, and we’re pleased. She said her first word at seven months (“Duck!” in English), and has been a little chatterbox ever since, really grasping the individual languages at around 11 months when she started saying handfuls of new words each day. I stopped counting new words once she hit about a hundred in each of her three primary languages. Yes, I said each. At around 18 months, she started saying the same word in multiple languages (sometimes saying “doggie” in English, sometimes “kelev” in Hebrew, and other times “gou” in Chinese). She recognizes that they all mean the same thing. She picks and chooses which language she wants to use and when she wants to use it, but she understands all three. It’s hard to argue with that.
In response to any criticism, I say that if a child has no problem communicating his or her needs and wants, then it seems to be working, despite us not doing it the way you would have done it.
Yes, there can be ramifications to the decision to introduce multiple languages early on, but said ramifications are neither positive nor negative. For instance, it can happen that a multilingually raised child can begin speaking later than normal (whatever “normal” means). Others can confuse the various languages towards the beginning of their learning cycle until they sort them out. In both of these cases, we’re talking about things that happen when they are still young and meant to be developing. Normally, even in severe cases, by the time they pass toddler age, they’re over it. And let’s be real – while we love listening to our children talk, they haven’t developed enough to the point where what they’re saying is going to be deep and profound. The things kids say in the first couple years of their life mostly serve as cute memories, videos and stories for us… not for them. Even if they do fall into the small percentage of children who experience one of the above situations (or any other), the benefits that come with the skills they’ve acquired once they finish going through that period are tremendous. Bluntly, trading the long-term benefits of language skills, cultural connectivity and brain development for us being able to hear some cute phrases we can laugh about later on is selfish, and nothing but. And most of the time, you still get the cute phrases… now you just get them in multiple languages!
As for the advice I get regarding consistency, or of having the child associate one language consistently with one parent, both my husband and I do our best, but – beyond not being native speakers – I can’t help but learn Hebrew as my husband is spouting it all day, and he, vice versa, is learning Chinese, so we slip into each other’s language occasionally, without even thinking about it. We jokingly say that our family speaks Chebrish, because sometimes one sentence will include all three languages. And lately, four! Xena doesn’t seem to mind.
I readily admit that it’s been challenging for me to keep speaking Chinese with her, but I won’t stop, and neither will my husband with his Hebrew. We won’t, because we believe we’re doing our child a service, not a disservice. Even if my grammar has flaws, or my accent isn’t perfect, and that gets passed down to her initially, she will have a foundation in the language, which is better than not speaking the language at all. Once she gets a little older and we enroll her in a Chinese “school” and a Hebrew “school” (at that age, they will be more like playgroups), she will start to evolve that foundation into something more organic. This should naturally help mitigate the accent, grammar and vocabulary issues that I unintentionally instilled in her early on.
As for worrying about confusing Xena, I’m not at all worried. I see her grasp each language and say more words every day. I watch as she plays with children who don’t speak any of her languages and they get along just fine. I know when she goes to school, she’ll be able to figure out which language to use with her peers, just like she’s figured out to say “dobre den” when we’re in Bulgaria, “shalom” when we’re in Israel and “adios” when we’re in Spain.
I’m just not stressing about it. I think that the “consistency” that we give her at home will be enough to help her figure things out in her little, but powerful, brain. Remember, babies are born with the maximum number of neurons they ever have throughout their life. At three years old, babies’ brains more than double in size, but they go through what’s called a synaptic pruning, which means that even though their brains are now bigger, they have less neurons firing. This is why early development matters, and why it’s recommended to introduce multiple languages early. In fact, the fastest rate of human brain development occurs between the ages of zero and three, so hurry!
Of course, research and science are ever-changing, and each human is different. Being a parent means knowing your child and assessing what they’re capable of. It also means being able to really pay attention and observe in order to see what does and does not work for your specific offspring. Babies and toddlers are capable of so much – far more than people give them credit for. Let’s give them a chance, and they will learn as many languages as we possibly can teach them.