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The value of learning a second language

Michele Kriegman
1994, 'The value of learning a second language', Parentguide, 5: 14.

Estimates reveal about half the world’s population is bilingual


Ever since the Tower of Babel fell, humankind has been speaking in many tongues. Just how many languages one speaks has more to do with luck and love of language than any inborn linguistic genius.

Between us, my husband and I speak four languages – English, Thai, Japanese and Chinese. But there are just as many languages that we either failed to learn or have forgotten – German, French, Yiddish and Indonesian. While the successes opened doors to culture, places and people  (including each other) we might not have known otherwise, our linguistic failures taught us more about how to learn languages and how to teach them to our children.

One of my “failures” was Yiddish, even though all of us - my sister and cousins – understood it at one time. We heard it at family gatherings from a distant uncle who, despite half a century in this country, only spoke Yiddish. Without formal instruction, we all seemed to pick it up. But once he died, we all forgot it.

Professional linguists have documented many cases of bilingual children who forgot a language once it became unnecessary for communication. Necessity or motivation is more critical in the acquisition of a second language than any particular method of teaching.

As you try to teach your children a second language, make clear the reasons for learning the language. There are many good reasons for a teacher to teach and a student to study. One is to be able to communicate with relatives who speak another language and to convey the ideas of a particular ethnic heritage.

A second reason to learn a foreign language is fortune. Learning one of the “international” languages like French, English, Arabic, Spanish and Japanese can be a ticker to financial security. For example, many East Asian countries require prospective university students to demonstrate English proficiency on entrance exams.

Another good reason for teaching or studying a language is love of a particular culture – its art, music, cuisine, drama. That was the case when my mother tried to teach me bahasa tingi, or Indonesian. She started teaching us simple phrases, showed us slides from the plantation she used to live on in northern Sumatra and explained the Indonesian masks and shadow puppets that decorated our home. But neither my sister nor I speak a single word of Indonesian anymore. There was absolutely no imaginable use for bahasa tingi in the 1960s in suburban New Jersey so we soon for got it.

But is this a failure? After all, this experiment taught me that there is another world on this planet, an Indonesian world where words and music and time exist, but differently than ours. (I also learned to cook up one mean curry!)

A final reason for teaching our children another language is out of a sense of humility. It’s healthy to know that our nation is only one of over a hundred on earth. It’s good to know that thought patterns can be culture- and language-bound. It’s good to feel awe at the expressiveness and intricacy of another people’s language. This awareness can connect us with other people in other places.

Whatever your motivation, there are several activities you can plan to expose your children to other languages.

1.        Use bilingual storybooks or song tapes. Some of the easier storybooks are the Babar series. The “Teach Me” audiocassette series is wonderful. Each comes with a coloring book that corresponds to each song and translations are given in the back of each book. Berlitz Jr. has a straightforward instruction book and audiotapes for school-age children. If you are fluent in the target language, you can even record songs, riddles and short verses on your own homemade tapes.

2.        Play with the language. Our oldest daughter loves sharing secrets. If we whisper a secret using a new sentence pattern, she seems to remember and use that pattern especially well. Rhyming games help children retain vocabulary better. As you would in English, pick a word like “chair” and take turns coming up with rhymes like “there,” “hair,” or “bear” until one person gives up. Or try alliteration games to create sentences so silly you’ll smile.

3.        For children old enough to read and write – read and write! Anywhere. A friend of mine put new vocabulary words on individual post-it notes and stuck them on the tile walls of the bathroom. Spelling games in a foreign language can help shorten car rides.

4.        Let your children choose the language they want to study. Unless you have strong reasons to select a particular language, letting your children pick one, like they would a musical instrument, gives them a feeling of “ownership.”

Through our linguistic failures, my husband and I discovered that two of the biggest obstacles that prevent foreign language acquisition, particularly to the level of fluency, are feelings that the language is unnecessary or that it carries a social stigma.

There are several ways you can deal with the first problem of making the language necessary or “real” to your children. Try to arrange for someone else besides mommy or daddy to meet regularly with your child as a surrogate Big Brother or Big Sister who speaks to them exclusively in the target language. We found Thai college students eager to fill that role for our daughters who are learning Thai.

Another way to help make the language feel more useful is to give it a context. If possible, make extended trips to the country where the language is spoken. Try to visit neighborhoods, stores or restaurants where your children can try conversations and hear other people using their language, too.

Some parents use seclusion as a way of enforcing bilingualism; they live in ethnic enclaves where their children only socialize in the family’s native tongue until they attend schools where they start to learn English as a second language. Home schooling is another way to enforce use of the less common language.

Another obstacle may be a child’s fear of standing out. When the kids in her nursery school started teasing the one Chinese boy in class, our eldest daughter refused to speak any language besides English, even at home. Every incident and child is different, but it helped my daughter to know she was far from alone. We pointed out family friends who spoke other languages, and when other countries were mentioned on TV, we talked about what language or languages were spoken there. No firm figures exist, but estimates reveal about half the worlds’ population is bilingual. Although it may not feel that way if you live in the broad mono-lingual expanses of North America, bilingualism is the rule, not the exception, around most of the globe.

Whether you introduce your child to another language for the sake of family, fortune or cultural exposure and appreciation, it should be a positive, rewarding experience for everyone!

Michele Kriegman-Chin teaches Japanese at local colleges and is raising her three children to speak English and Thai.


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