Raising a Bilingual Child

There are a lot of myths surrounding language and kids. Should the child’s mother tongue be the first language she learns? How about English or any other second language? When should that be introduced? Does introducing more than one language too early on confuse and delay the child’s progress?

When my daughter was 7 months old, we hired a lady to help around the house as well as to help look after her. She was Zimbabwean. Having her around was a godsend but it meant speaking to G only in English throughout the day. I didn’t mind it. Both my husband and I are comfortable enough in the language to not find using it cumbersome with our baby. Speaking to her in English didn’t involve too much effort on our part so we didn’t think much of it. But when we relocated to India, problems slowly began cropping up.

G was an early talker. At the age of 15 months, when we moved back, she had a decent vocabulary. Although she couldn’t string sentences, she could happily use the right words to convey her needs. I don’t know why the question of language started cropping up in conversations with family then. Seeing that everyone in the immediate family is proficient in the language, it was probably more a sentimental thing than practical. My parents, in laws, distant relatives all pointed out the fact that G couldn’t speak a word of Assamese, which is her mother tongue. It didn’t bother me, initially. But it built up. I began to wonder if my daughter too was going to turn up like those kids who can’t speak the language that their parents converse in. I began worrying if I should make a conscious effort to teach her the language. If so, when? Wouldn’t it make her forget English? Conversely, there were also times when I brushed off these worries with the firm faith that since she is exposed to the language on a daily basis, she was bound to pick it up. Sooner or later. But the worries would always come back and haunt.

Today, G is 2 years and 8 months old. Since the last month, she has been speaking both languages fluently. She switches between languages with ease and doesn’t seem to be confusing words of one with the other. She has her own way of reserving one language for a particular situation or a particular person. But that doesn’t mar her proficiency. Not only has she not forgotten English but is also beginning to pick up phrases in a third language, Hindi.

I don’t want to sound boastful. I have no reason to as whatever strides she has made have come of her own accord. I just want other parents out there to know that in my experience, raising a bilingual child is easier than it is made to sound. If they are exposed to more than one language from an early age, they are likely to pick both up automatically. So, if you have a child between 1 and 2 years of age and are wondering which language to teach her, my advice would be to stop ‘teaching’. Instead, converse with her in both languages. Read to her a lot. Point out things and tell her what it is called in both languages and before you know it, she will be chattering away. Bear in mind, though, that children speak at their own pace so don’t compare or be disheartened if it takes your child longer than you expected. Happy conversing!

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