I met my wife Julia while teaching English in Saint Petersburg, Russia. We married and soon learned she was pregnant with our son Jack, and upon my in-law’s request, he was delivered in Sayanagorsk, Siberia – my wife’s home city. Two years later, now living in California, our little guy is halfway through his English alphabet, pointing out and saying words like apple and airplane, egg and juice, and he has a selective appetite; hence, we have boxes of Costco Spanish rice, peanut butter, and blueberries stalked like a Soviet armory in our pantry.
Jack, however, is developing his language at a slower pace than other kids. His cousin Declan, with lighting moves of some agile, jungle primate has managed full sentences like here you go, catch! before hurling a whiffle ball at your head. Jack watches in subtle amusement, and we can see in his eyes the desire to communicate well. We’ve been told this is due to processing both Russian and Engish. For us, it was important that he spoke both languages and be able to communicate with his family on both sides of the world. There’s also a richness in the inflection of Slavic languages: it suggests an old and enduring culter. This, in turn, will give him not only a fascinating backstory but two languages to tell it in. Watching him absorb and process and go on to repeat language has intrigued me. Children seem to learn a language much better, much faster, like little computers.
Don’t feel bad, they’re just smarter than us
In the midst of sippy cups, tickle-me-Elmo, Tayo the friendly bus, and discovering the inherent power in the word no, we’ve begun to interpret his delay in speech as a friendly reminder that an amazing process is occurring in our little boy’s brain due to both languages swiveling his attention from mommy’s voice to daddy’s. The process of learning language is best suited for children. As we age, we lose this characteristic. We also become self-conscious and less proud to open our mouths and make a mistake.
I myself have taken stabs ( too many) at learning Russian, listening, speaking, cramming in the grammar, and even living Russia itself. But for children, absorbing language is a subconscious act. Their little brains are built in the early years for corralling information, much the way we retain rhymes and rhythms without wanting to. According to Be Brain Fit, “children can easily learn additional languages due to their heightened neuroplasticity, the brain’s capacity to form new neural connections and new brain cells throughout life.” If only I was aware of this at age 2!
There are benefits
If you’re raising your child bilingual or considering it, understand that it benefits them in ways other than remaining close to their cultural background. According to a study, there are social benefits including a strong sense of empathy. This allows children to put themselves in other’s shoes and communicate more effectively. Additionally, learning a language early will allow for an easier experience in the future. The process involves memorization of vocabulary, internalizing grammar, listening for hundreds of hours to dialogues, and constant setbacks.
Knowing the process ahead of time is like traveling a road you once viewed as unfamiliar, but manageable the second go-around, as children will detect reemerging patterns during their subsequent experience. Cognitively, there’s much to gain. “Research on executive functions such as working memory, perception, and attentional and inhibitory control, has suggested that bilinguals can benefit from significant cognitive advantages over monolingual peers in various settings.” Other strengths include, but are not limited to, better discipline, focus, and logical reasoning.
How do we put this into play?
As I mentioned above, my wife speaks Russian in simple, persuasive terms. I speak English with him, and so far, he responds to both languages. In an article produced by Cornell University Its best to surround a kid with “more than one language through conversations and social groups using different languages; the earlier the better.” When at home, try to speak with your main heritage language if a second language is being learned outside of the house. “Expose children to multilingual settings and give them plenty of opportunities to play with children who speak the second language.”
The basics of learning language that apply to us apply to children. Begin with vocabulary- cat, dog, mommy, and daddy. Point them out to your child and ask what is this? Avoid giving commands like say orange! Instead, incorporate he/she in conversation. Talk to them instead of at them. Remember, “one parent, one language,” according to Raising Bilingual Kids. Each parent should stick to their own language. This is hardly a problem for me, as my Russian is limited to mere babble.
Keep your child’s miraculous capability in mind when searching for the right method to introduce a second language: they absorb in more information than we can imagine. Much of the tedious work, as it is for us anyway, of learning to speak a second language comes naturally to them, and they develop a sense of pride even upon making mistakes as they learn. Having bilingual skills will not only benefit them cognitively but socially, instilling a sense of pride in a rich cultural heritage.