As parents of multilingual children, we are often plagued by a myriad of concerns, especially when it comes to our multilingual children speaking. We wonder if our children’s speech delay has anything to do with us raising them multilingually. We worry about our multilingual children mixing their languages. We fret when our children all of a sudden decide to stop speaking our language. Each of these concerns is valid and something we need to work through for ourselves so that we can stay on track with confidence!
Yet with all of this worry around our children’s speech, we often forget the most important element in raising multilingual children. We take for granted the one ingredient which has probably the most impact on whether or not our children will become multilingual!
What is this magical element? Drum roll please…
This magical element is: Listening.
As most of us have experienced, it is very difficult to learn a language if we never hear it spoken. As a case in point: I studied Ancient History in college (I wanted to be a Mediterranean Archaeologist). A large part of my four years of study was spent dedicated to learning Ancient Greek and Latin (languages which I truly enjoyed learning). Five days a week I had classes in those languages and hours of homework each night. On top of that, I was practicing reading French and Italian, as we were expected to be able to read research materials in those languages. After a few years of this, I finally proclaimed myself a language-learning failure when I just couldn’t seem to retain vocabulary in any of those languages. Then I met my German husband-to-be and after spending a year in Germany, I was attending classes at his university in German!
You already know what the magic elixir was: Listening!
I was surrounded by German-speakers day in and day out. Their words were penetrating me and I was soaking it all up like a sponge. I remember falling asleep at night with specific sentence constructs rolling around in my head (Es gibt viele Gründe dafür… that one rolled around in my head for weeks!). Listening and retaining, listening and retaining.
Television shows were in German, the radio was in German (even many of the songs), books were in German, signs were in German. Everywhere I looked or listened, it was German and all of that went into me day after day, week after week, month after month.
Multilingual children need to hear their second language spoken often, even if you don’t hear them using the language themselves. They need to hear it spoken in context and they need to hear it spoken by as many people as possible. You need to be this language gateway by speaking it yourself, putting on music in the language, finding DVDs and online videos in the language and surrounding your child with books in the language.
So if today you find that you are fretting over something in particular about your multilingual parenting journey, stop and take a deep breath. All you have to do today is to speak your language. That’s it! If you do that, you will have covered the most important ingredient of all! Just start babbling away – even if it is about the weather or the cake you are baking or how fascinating the vacuum is when it sucks up those fur balls. Isn’t that great!? We don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about whether we are talking about the right things with our multilingual children and we definitely don’t need to think about teaching our children grammar or sentence structures! Not today. Today you just talk and surround your child’s world with your language. We can make it more structured if and when we want to, but save that for another day.
Here are some additional ideas to get your multilingual child listening:
1. Play CDs of music or speaking at bedtime in your language.
These can be really enjoyable for children as they drift off to sleep – and what a great way to help them take in language in a relaxed environment! These may be CDs that you only play at bedtime so that your children look forward to them or ones that are their favorites that they listen to all the time. Make sure they aren’t scary!
2. Fill your home with children’s DVDs in your language.
If the majority of what you have at home are DVDs in your language, then the chances are high that your child will want to watch one of them. Your child doesn’t need to have mastered the language to watch them. The pictures help children understand the vocabulary together with what it means.
3. Record yourself reading a book, telling a story or singing songs in your language.
My mother did this in English for my children before she passed away. She recorded herself on CDs reading a bunch of the Boxcar Children books out loud and then sent them to my kids. You can do this as well and have these CDs on hand when you aren’t around – for example, when a babysitter takes care of your kids or you are driving in the car and don’t feel like chatting.
4. Invite friends over who speak the language or hire a nanny.
Make sure it is understood that your friends or the nanny are to speak a lot with your child. Their task will be to engage as much as possible with your child, speaking and interacting, not just being a silent observer. Someone who just comes to watch your child but who speaks very little won’t be very helpful for providing your child with listening opportunities!
5. Spend time in an international district in your city or visit a community center/church/cultural event.
We often forget that in many large cities, there are areas where our languages are spoken! In Seattle where I live, we have a large International District where many Asian languages are spoken! It would be a shame for families raising their children in any of those languages to pass up the opportunity to hear the language spoken in their own city by people doing every-day tasks. People who are church-goers might find a church where the service is in their language. Sometimes community centers have gatherings for people who speak another language. It is particularly beneficial if your child can be around people of different ages who all speak the language!
6. And the most important of all: reading out loud.
Read, read, read out loud. This is a fabulous way to introduce vocabulary, sentence structures, grammar, context, everything all in one finely mastered package. You don’t even have to think about the words you are reading as they have already been chosen for you! When your children are young, focus on books with more pictures (for the context) and as your children get older, choose books with less pictures (let them envision the pictures in their own minds).
Whether your children are speaking your language or not, if you keep speaking with them, they are continuing to take in all that you have to offer in your language. Visit a country where your language is spoken and you will see how much your children have picked up from you!
One additional key to listening: repetition. Have you noticed that children often want to hear the same story over and over and over again? This is how our children become comfortable with their world and with this comfort comes a sense of mastery over their languages. How can they learn the words if they don’t hear them over and over again in contexts that they understand and embrace? Instead of hoping that the book goes missing so that you won’t have to read it for the 100th time, encourage this repetition and know that you are doing a wonderful, wonderful thing!
Postscript – Aug. 26, 2010: For more information on the value of surrounding ourselves and our children with a language (as well as some great tips), read Susanna Zaraysky’s book Language is Music. Here is a great interview with her on CBS news where she explains more about her approach to language learning (and how she has come to speak 7!).
Do you feel that your children have enough listening in their lives? What things do you do to make sure your child has enough listening opportunities? Help me add to the list above with your tips and suggestions! Or share what isn’t working when it comes to listening!