Language acquisition in an ESL-family

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 26, 2010 06:00 AM

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Dear Barbara,

How to develop my son's language skills? He is 18 months old and we speak native language at home, and when he goes out he is listening to English. He just started to communicate a few simple words but I am wondering if he is confused about what language he needs to speak. I would like him to learn both languages. Please advise and help.

Thank you,
Amrutha, Kennesaw, GA
Dear Amrutha,

Research repeatedly shows that children are able to learn a first and a second language almost effortlessly before the age of 6 if they are exposed to both languages on a regular basis.  What's more, they do not seem to be confused when one language is spoken at home and another language is spoken elsewhere, or even if one caregiver speaks one language and another caregiver speaks a different one. They somehow intuit that these are just differences from person to person, and they are able to accommodate each. Kind of amazing, huh?

The key is to be consistent. It's fine -- preferable, even -- to speak your native language at home. When you are out in the world, however, it's OK for you to speak English. That won't confuse him, he will take it for what it is: this is the way we talk at home, this is the way we talk when we're not at home. In fact, what is hardest on children whose parents' first language is not English is when the parents do not learn/speak English outside the home and, instead,  rely on the child to become the family interpreter.

What tends to be hardest for parents is when children get to the age (often in middle school) where they no longer want to speak the native language at home or even at all. Many parents are humiliated or embarrassed; in some families, they stop speaking English altogether because the child thinks their English isn't "good enough." I've heard of other families where a chasm opens up between the child and the parents because there is no communication between them. All my reporting shows that families do best when  (1) parents stick to their values  -- "It's important to us not to forget our native language; I want you to be able to talk to your grandparents;" -- (2) children understand what those values are; and (e) when parents are honest ("I'm sorry my English embarrasses you. I'm trying my best (I'm taking an ESL course....) and I appreciate it when you give me constructive help." 

I hope some parents who have been through this will share their experiences in the comments.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
 

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5 comments so far...
  1. Barbara's advice is exactly correct. I grew up with this practise and I have excelled in school.

    Speak your own language at home. When your child begins to speak, make sure that he speaks ONLY ONE language at a time. That is the real problem with living in two languages in North America. There may be Saturday school for your home language and this is an excellent idea. Learning to read and write will make sure that your child really keeps that language.

    Your child will pick up English without any effort by the age of 4 (preschool). Be VERY careful about which TV programs you play in the house as that is the kind of English that your child will learn to use on a regular basis until he reaches school age. When homework comes up, again insist that your child speak ONE language at a time.

    Mixing words or even phrases in two languages makes kids lazy in both. They lose important grammatical principles faster that way.

    Posted by Irene April 26, 10 10:27 AM
  1. Stick with it if it's important to you. It's not at all confusing for the kids. I grew up speaking two languages at home, it was totally fine. My parents were very relaxed about it, in retrospect I wish they HAD been more insistent that we stick with it because it's important to my family. And don't be discouraged if your kids give up on speaking your native language. My mom still speaks Spanish to us even though we all speak English to her, and it means a lot to me that she does that.

    Posted by anita April 26, 10 01:46 PM
  1. Like other parents who needed to raise their children in a bilingual environment, we had to decide if we taught him English when and how.
    We stuck with the tactic that we only taught him Korean until he could fluently speak it. I think it was until he was 3. After that age, he went to a daycare center where he could learn English from native speakers. In the beginning, he was so confused with two languages especially with English. He was also so self-conscious about his poor verbal ability that he didn't want to speak English at all. However, after one year he played with his Korean friends in English. Since he entered Kindergarten, his English has been getting better than his Korean. He even refused to study Korean at home. At that point, my husband and I had to explain to my son why he needed our native language in order to get his agreement.

    Right now, my husband is the one who keeps speaking Korean at home. I am a kind of bridge between English and Korean. I don't remember when he started to speak to me in English and I answered him in Korean. Every night my son and I have a Korean book reading time. That is only one activity for studying Korean during schooldays without any fuss. He and I promised that we would study Korean more intensively during summer vacation. Our goal is that my son needs to be able to read and write Korean before he goes to a middle school. Wish me good luck.

    I hope someday he will appreciate our effort to keep his Korean.

    Posted by O, Brookline April 27, 10 10:10 AM
  1. To tell my story, I'm going to keep the language, country of origen and the gender private because I do not find them relevant.

    Our family is also raising a bilingual child and it has been no problem at all. One parent is American and the other parent is European, but we both started speaking to our child in the foreign language at home so that our child could get more of it to start with; our nanny also supported our efforts. We also have no European family in the States and we realized that the exposure to English would be strong and unavoidable, coming from the environment, baby & toddler classes, family, friends, tv, etc. So we decided that our child would need greater support with the foreign language.

    Our child did not have any developmental delay and no speech or learning difficulty from the introduction of 2 languages or from our choice in technique. On the contrary, it was fun to say things two ways. By 1.5 years of age our child was already bilingual. We were right, English is everywhere and it is unavoidable. One parent is not totally fluid on the foreign language so we spoke English among ourselves when speaking about serious things (money, business, etc) but used the foreign language for the smaller, every day things. It worked for us.

    Our child is now 2.7 years of age and continues to thrive as a bilingual learner. We use English outside of the house or in the presence of English speakers, and use the foreign language at home, with other speakers of the same language, or whenever we travel to Europe to visit family. We read books in both languages as well. We support our child needs and do our best to balance the use of each language as much as we can.

    Our child is not confused and rather understands and even clarifies for us when the child wants to speak one language over the other. Now, we are getting to a bit of a turning point when it is becoming easer for the child to prefer using English because that's what's around and it's easier. Nevertheless, we explain the needs of our family and the importance of speaking both languages.

    Some researchers suggest that, for bilingual families, each parent should select one language only... and we would have done that but it wasn't working for our circumstances and our child, so we made variations that worked to support and accomplish what we need.

    For us the key ideas to keep in mind are: to have a good foundation for each language and use each separately and appropriately; to support the learning needs of the child on each stage and be flexible to modify any technique; and to enjoy the process, being very patient, rewarding and constant.

    There have been bilingual families before studies and techniques came about, and families have incorporated a variety of styles to accommodate their needs, and those children have all learned well.

    Children are little sponges, eager to learn and adapt. Children all over the world learn multiple languages from early on, and there is nothing but benefits coming from this. It is important to have perseverance, patience, and knowing your child. It's not always easy, it's quite challenging at times, but it's worth it.

    Our family has strong respect for multiple cultures and languages, including English, and hope to pass this along.

    Posted by rmg April 28, 10 10:31 AM
  1. If started from an early age, being bilingual is not an issue, i disagree with those who think it better to teach one language first then another I've seen the best results when taught both at the same time. At first they will mix and match but as the progress they know witch language to use with whom.

    Posted by english courses April 10, 11 02:23 AM
 
5 comments so far...
  1. Barbara's advice is exactly correct. I grew up with this practise and I have excelled in school.

    Speak your own language at home. When your child begins to speak, make sure that he speaks ONLY ONE language at a time. That is the real problem with living in two languages in North America. There may be Saturday school for your home language and this is an excellent idea. Learning to read and write will make sure that your child really keeps that language.

    Your child will pick up English without any effort by the age of 4 (preschool). Be VERY careful about which TV programs you play in the house as that is the kind of English that your child will learn to use on a regular basis until he reaches school age. When homework comes up, again insist that your child speak ONE language at a time.

    Mixing words or even phrases in two languages makes kids lazy in both. They lose important grammatical principles faster that way.

    Posted by Irene April 26, 10 10:27 AM
  1. Stick with it if it's important to you. It's not at all confusing for the kids. I grew up speaking two languages at home, it was totally fine. My parents were very relaxed about it, in retrospect I wish they HAD been more insistent that we stick with it because it's important to my family. And don't be discouraged if your kids give up on speaking your native language. My mom still speaks Spanish to us even though we all speak English to her, and it means a lot to me that she does that.

    Posted by anita April 26, 10 01:46 PM
  1. Like other parents who needed to raise their children in a bilingual environment, we had to decide if we taught him English when and how.
    We stuck with the tactic that we only taught him Korean until he could fluently speak it. I think it was until he was 3. After that age, he went to a daycare center where he could learn English from native speakers. In the beginning, he was so confused with two languages especially with English. He was also so self-conscious about his poor verbal ability that he didn't want to speak English at all. However, after one year he played with his Korean friends in English. Since he entered Kindergarten, his English has been getting better than his Korean. He even refused to study Korean at home. At that point, my husband and I had to explain to my son why he needed our native language in order to get his agreement.

    Right now, my husband is the one who keeps speaking Korean at home. I am a kind of bridge between English and Korean. I don't remember when he started to speak to me in English and I answered him in Korean. Every night my son and I have a Korean book reading time. That is only one activity for studying Korean during schooldays without any fuss. He and I promised that we would study Korean more intensively during summer vacation. Our goal is that my son needs to be able to read and write Korean before he goes to a middle school. Wish me good luck.

    I hope someday he will appreciate our effort to keep his Korean.

    Posted by O, Brookline April 27, 10 10:10 AM
  1. To tell my story, I'm going to keep the language, country of origen and the gender private because I do not find them relevant.

    Our family is also raising a bilingual child and it has been no problem at all. One parent is American and the other parent is European, but we both started speaking to our child in the foreign language at home so that our child could get more of it to start with; our nanny also supported our efforts. We also have no European family in the States and we realized that the exposure to English would be strong and unavoidable, coming from the environment, baby & toddler classes, family, friends, tv, etc. So we decided that our child would need greater support with the foreign language.

    Our child did not have any developmental delay and no speech or learning difficulty from the introduction of 2 languages or from our choice in technique. On the contrary, it was fun to say things two ways. By 1.5 years of age our child was already bilingual. We were right, English is everywhere and it is unavoidable. One parent is not totally fluid on the foreign language so we spoke English among ourselves when speaking about serious things (money, business, etc) but used the foreign language for the smaller, every day things. It worked for us.

    Our child is now 2.7 years of age and continues to thrive as a bilingual learner. We use English outside of the house or in the presence of English speakers, and use the foreign language at home, with other speakers of the same language, or whenever we travel to Europe to visit family. We read books in both languages as well. We support our child needs and do our best to balance the use of each language as much as we can.

    Our child is not confused and rather understands and even clarifies for us when the child wants to speak one language over the other. Now, we are getting to a bit of a turning point when it is becoming easer for the child to prefer using English because that's what's around and it's easier. Nevertheless, we explain the needs of our family and the importance of speaking both languages.

    Some researchers suggest that, for bilingual families, each parent should select one language only... and we would have done that but it wasn't working for our circumstances and our child, so we made variations that worked to support and accomplish what we need.

    For us the key ideas to keep in mind are: to have a good foundation for each language and use each separately and appropriately; to support the learning needs of the child on each stage and be flexible to modify any technique; and to enjoy the process, being very patient, rewarding and constant.

    There have been bilingual families before studies and techniques came about, and families have incorporated a variety of styles to accommodate their needs, and those children have all learned well.

    Children are little sponges, eager to learn and adapt. Children all over the world learn multiple languages from early on, and there is nothing but benefits coming from this. It is important to have perseverance, patience, and knowing your child. It's not always easy, it's quite challenging at times, but it's worth it.

    Our family has strong respect for multiple cultures and languages, including English, and hope to pass this along.

    Posted by rmg April 28, 10 10:31 AM
  1. If started from an early age, being bilingual is not an issue, i disagree with those who think it better to teach one language first then another I've seen the best results when taught both at the same time. At first they will mix and match but as the progress they know witch language to use with whom.

    Posted by english courses April 10, 11 02:23 AM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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