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