Please don’t ask “How do you teach a child a second language?”

This question regularly comes up in forums or Facebook groups for bilingual parents.  It is usually asked by parents-to-be as they reflect on the bilingual education they want to give to their forthcoming bundle of joy.  The formulation, however, never ceases to make me cringe. Why? Because the whole question gives the wrong idea of what bilingual education is and the wonderful work us bilingual parents are doing.

First of all, because of the term “Second language”.  To my eyes, if you rear bilingual there is no language ranking.  A second language is a foreign language learnt at a non-native level.  Yes, the child will eventually develop a stronger language over the other, and most probably it will be the Majority Language (ML).  Nevertheless, balanced bilingualism is rare as bilingual authority François Grosjean indicates in “Myths about bilingualism”, and that does not make it a second language.

The second thing that irritates me is the “how do you teach”.  It makes it sound as if formal teaching is the only way to learn a language.  However, if you are looking at raising bilingual, that means a native level. And no native baby is formally taught their mother-tongue!  It is simply the loving relationship and communication with their parents that ensures the child picks up the language, whether Majority or minority language (ml); bilingual or monolingual.

Having learnt my 2 other languages as a child (mind, not as a baby) through living abroad, I feel even more passionate about the fact that the most effective, and native-like, language-learning is through “living the language”.  Experiencing it every (or almost!) second of your day. That is why to “teach” your baby, you have to exclusively use the ml from dawn to dusk with him or her, describing everything, put words on his or her surroundings. Strengthen this with LOADS of ml reading, music, movies, etc… and if you can supplement with playdates with kids of his or her age that speak the ml.  As a bilingual mum once put it, no child is born pre-programmed to only speak the ML.

Though raising a bilingual child might not pick up the ml as naturally as we expected them to in our dreams (after all, it is a bumpy journey), there is one thing that remains absolutely natural: the loving parent-child relationship.  And it is this relationship that gives rise to a child’s dual communication skills.

Now, if you are looking for information on how to raise your child bi- or multilingual, you are very wise to do so as the journey is often not as straightforward as we expected it to be.  However, in your search please don’t ask “How do you teach a child a second language?” as it sends a strong and inaccurate message to the world: rearing bilingual is unnatural and parents “teaching” their children a language are “freaks”.  The real question should rather be “How does one effectively raise a child bilingual?”.  And in any case, welcome aboard this incredible journey! 🙂

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