How do Chinese-speaking families teach children English?
Submitted by Bernadette Davidson, director of child care services at Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center
Speaking more than one language enhances brain development, according to the latest research. Adults who speak more than one language have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and a later onset if they are afflicted. Yet, parents worry that their children who speak a different language than English in their home may not be prepared for school.
What do we know about learning English? First, developing a child’s home language is critical for a variety of reasons. Language carries the culture of a people and connects children to their traditions and family who speak that language. Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers. Language skills developed in the home language create a foundation for the learning of a second language. Children can either learn languages sequentially or at the same time.
In the pamphlet “Bilingual Bebe, a resource guide for bilingual families and educators” funded by the Mass. Department of Early Education and Care and written by Child Care Choices of Boston, the following recommendations are made for parents:
- Be consistent with the language you choose to speak to your child.
- Use one language at one time and another a different time. If there are two people who use two languages, have one speak one language and the other use the other language. Or if one person is raising the child using more than one language, use one language in one location and the other in another. Another alternative is to use one language at a particular time of the day and another language at another.
- Create opportunities for your child to use and hear the home language. Make them fun. Examples can be movies in home language suitable for children, books or cultural events where the language is used.
- Ensure your child has exposure to both languages frequently. English is the dominant language in the culture and in Massachusetts in most schools. You will have to promote your home language to have your child keep it.
- Speak to all children in your home in the same language
- Encourage your child to use the language you are speaking to him in by gently modeling the language you want to be used and asking her to repeat it in that language
- Stopping usage of the home language in preference to English if it has been used in the home can disrupt language development in both languages. A child spoken only to in English when other languages are in use can feel excluded and hurt.
- Don’t punish children for using or not using English or the home language.
- If possible, expose your child to both languages from birth. Children can learn many languages at once and learning a second language makes it easier to learn a third.
- When children learn two languages either at the same time or sequentially, they have a different language development pattern. Children learning two or more languages initially learn vocabulary in two languages. While the amount of vocabulary that is learned is the same, it is spread across two languages. When children are in an English environment for the first time and have been using a different language at home, it is normal to have a period of silence when they are learning but not using the language. It is also normal initially to mix two languages. This will smooth out with time. Acquisition of English takes time and the social oral skills come first.
There are things you can do with your child that will support literacy, no matter what language you use in your home. Make sure you both talk and listen to your child from birth. Respond to babies’ cries, coos and babbling. Your child is learning language from birth even if it takes a year for the first words to come. Name things in the baby’s environment. Let your baby experience a variety of things and talk about them.
Read to your child regularly. Make lists of all kinds: groceries, things you will do on the weekend, what to bring to school. Label things in your child’s room. Tell stories about your life, your family and talk about feelings as well. Help your child name her feelings.
Play with your child regularly. Explore the zoo, the children’s museum and talk about the things in the world you experience with your child. That can be the cars on the road, the subway stops, the weather or what you will eat for supper. Children who are talked and listened to regularly develop comfort and competency in speaking and listening. Sing to your children and try to remember finger plays and rhymes from your childhood. Enjoy your child and try to use language to share good times. This will prepare your child to use language in life and in school.
This post is also available in: Chinese