Monday, October 8, 2007

National Bilingual Child Month

October is, among other things, Bilingual Child Month!
Back when my grandparents were children, just about everyone was bilingual! Families immigrated from other countries, so they still spoke their "mother tongue" at home... but often, when children went out into the world, they had to quickly learn English in order to get by. Kids who didn't learn to speak English quickly enough were often thought of as dumb, and might not get far in their classes. Kids who did learn English had to be able to translate for their parents in many situations!
Sadly, as all of those kids learned that English was the only acceptable language in public, many did not pass their mother-tongues on to their own children. This is why my own mother never learned Italian, even though her grandparents immigrated here from Italy and her mother was fluent in Italian. And thats why I don't speak Italian either!
Being raised bilingual can be wonderful for children. Little kids pick up second languages much faster than adults. Plus, children who are atleast exposed to a second language (even if they do not become fluent in the language) have a better understanding of the differences between cultures, and may be more interested in learning other languages in the future.
Some people worry that exposing a child to two different languages too early... for instance, introducing a toddler to Spanish when she hasn't even learned to speak her native language yet, or speaking English and French in equal amounts to a baby... can be bad for the child. People feel that hearing two differnet languages will confuse the child, and stunt his language development rather than make it stronger!
But actually, most children are able to sort out two different languages with not much trouble. Knowing two languages actually makes a child's brain more flexible, in a way, because he has more words to identify things and thoughts.
If you have a child in your life, learning a second language together can be a great way to spend quality time together and do some bonding. But don't make it just an extension of school work and drill the child with flashcards and quizzes! Take your time and have fun with it. Find cultural events that relate to the language you're learning. Make labels for the items in your house. Learn songs and jokes in the new language. Practice speaking the language together in casual conversation. You can even get special tapes or CD's meant to teach you and your kids a foreign language while you ride in the car together!
Deciding what language to learn can be fun, too. You and the child in your life may choose to learn a language that was once in your family (for instance, I wish I could learn Italian), you may decide to learn French because the child in your life wants to visit Paris someday, you may choose Spanish or Polish because the child in your life has friends who speak these languages as their native tongues!
By the way, if you have younger kids in your life (of the PBS Kids age) watching Dora The Explorer and Go Diego Go can be a great way to start learning Spanish together! The shows are actually broadcast in several other countries, with other languages dubbed over the English and Spanish. In fact, most other countries dub their own language over the English parts, and English over the Spanish parts, using the show to teach kids English instead of Spanish!

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