Raising Multilingual Children
Updated: Jul 25, 2018
Friday, May 18, 2018
From your baby’s babbling sounds (ba-ba, ma-ma) to their first words and sentences, language development represents many exciting milestones in your child’s overall development.
Speech and language are not just about your child’s ability to talk. Language, which includes spoken and written language, is the first step towards learning to read and write. These are skills that eventually support your child’s ability to think, communicate, express ideas, manage emotions, solve problems and maintain relationships.
What to expect
Generally, the biggest language milestones can be observed within the first three to four years of life, although your child’s language skills will still continue to develop beyond these years.
From three to 12 months, your baby will be making a lot of sounds like cooing, laughing and babbling. Your baby will also be using gestures to communicate.
At this age, your child is not too young to have a ‘conversation’ with you! Talk to your baby as if she will understand you, and pause to give her a chance to respond to you. Imitate the sounds that your baby makes, as this will encourage her to continue babbling.
Between 12 and 18 months, your child will learn her first words and will rapidly add more words to her vocabulary. After 18 months to two years, she will even start to form short sentences by stringing two or three words together.
From two to three years, your child will be able to say most words correctly and will speak longer and more complex sentences, which even strangers may be able to understand.
SEE ALSO: Raising Cultured Children
Beyond the age of three, you may find that you have a real chatterbox on your hands! Conversations with her will be more complex and she will ask more abstract questions. She will start picking up the rules of grammar and tell you some fun stories!
Children develop at different speeds from one another. It’s natural to want to compare your child to others of the same age, but remember that normal language development falls within a wide range.
Benefits of learning another language
In Malaysia it is normal, even expected, for children to speak more than one language. Some may pick up their second or third language at home, while others learn them in school.
There used to be a school of thought that believed that bilingualism would confuse children and lead them to start speaking three to six months later compared to monolingual children.
However, we now know that multilingual children actually have many advantages. Research shows that people who speak two languages often outperform monolinguals in terms of executive function, such as thinking and organisational skills.
Various studies suggest that bilingual children do better than their monolingual peers in reading skills, overall school performance, as well as attendance and engagement in school.
Some studies show that bilingual children can even be more empathetic, as they have to develop specific social and emotional skills, such as which language to use with which person and in what setting.
Finally, there is a long-term payoff to being bilingual: it may be able to ward off the effects of age-related dementia. Granted, we’re talking about decades down the road, but it’s still promising!
How to nurture multilingualism
What is the best age to introduce a second or third language? The earlier the better, especially from birth to age three when a child’s brain is rapidly developing its neural pathways.
Children can still learn languages at the later stage of childhood, but they learn it slower. By the early teens, a child’s special ability to pick up language is gone.
There are many different ways to introduce new languages at home. Some families practise One Person One Language, where each parent speaks a different language to the child. Others choose to speak the second language only on weekends. The key is that the whole family must agree with the method adopted and must be consistent.
How do you actually introduce a second language? The answer is simple: just talk! Everyday conversations – even to your infant – is the best way to help your child soak up the language.
This should be supported by reading, playing music and games, or having toys and other materials in the second language.
While YouTube videos could expose your child to a new language, remember that your child will not pick up conversational language skills just by watching them – she needs to know how the language is used in daily life.
Most importantly, make it fun, engaging and natural. There’s nothing more wonderful than giving children the skills and the freedom to express themselves.