Globally, the majority of children speak two or more languages. In some cases, they’re learning these languages at home from one of their parents. Others start through lessons at daycare or school. Then there are those living in countries with several national languages, for example, Canada, Switzerland and India. Who’s lagging behind in terms of multilingual skills compared to their peers? American children.
In Europe, on average 92% of children learn one, if not two languages, starting between the ages of six and nine. In the US, only 20% of children study a foreign language in school.
Things are slowly changing. Parents are aware of the advantages that speaking another language can bring to their children. Not only does it help them connect with family and their community, it can also be an advantage in their future careers.
Steps US parents are taking to close multi-language gaps include hiring foreign au pairs, or nannies, to instill a foreign language early on. Enrolling their children in public schools that offer bilingual programs from kindergarten through high school. French and Mandarin after-school programs are becoming as common as gymnastics or soccer.
Being bilingual has myriad benefits. At McGill University, Professor Fred Genessee specializes in second language acquisition and bilingualism research. Genessee tells Parentology, “Research has shown children who are fluent in two languages enjoy certain cognitive advantages in comparison to those who speak only one language. For example, they’re better at problem-solving, demonstrate greater creativity, and express more tolerant attitudes toward others.”
Raising a bilingual child can be tricky when families don’t live in an environment that naturally caters to two or more languages.
“Children need long-term, regular, and enriched exposure to both languages if they’re to acquire full competence in both and if they are to enjoy the long-term linguistic and cognitive benefits that come from being bilingual,” Genesee says. “The responsibility for ensuring infants and toddlers have an adequate dual-language learning environment must be shared by families and other childcare personnel. They must work together to create an additive dual-language learning environment.”
In other words, a weekly language class isn’t enough to raise a truly bilingual child. To do so, parents and caregivers should set a plan together and answer the following questions:
- – When would each language be used? Would this be determined by activity or time of day?
- – Who would practice each language in the child’s life? Family members? Teachers? Friends?
- – What functions would each language serve? Social, cultural, cognitive, pre-literacy pre-numeracy purposes?
- – How would those functions be used in developmentally appropriate activities?
There’s no “right” way to raise a bilingual child: each family must find a way that works for their lifestyle. The key is consistency and persistence, which can be challenging, as children are often naturally drawn towards one language and reluctant to immerse in others. The advantages of bilingualism, though, will follow them throughout their lives.
American Children Lag Behind in Foreign Language Skills: Sources
Professor Fred Genessee, McGill University
Pew Research: Most European students are learning a foreign language in school while Americans lag
The Annie E. Casey Foundation: The Number of Bilingual Kids in America Continues to Rise