Your passport to a bright future
It takes a lot of determination to raise your children to be bilingual so why do parents do it -- surely English is the most important language of all?
Published 21/06/2010 | 05:00
Of all the advantages we can give our children, raising them to be bilingual has to be one of the best. After all, given that more than 100 languages are spoken in Ireland today, it seems short-sighted to confine them to a childhood of fluency in just one.
In doing so, you'll provide them with improved cross-cultural understanding and career prospects in an increasingly global society.
You'll also provide them with enhanced cognitive skills. Canadian researchers have found those fluent in two languages are mentally sharper than those who speak only one, while British researchers have found those who are bilingual tend to have more grey matter in the language area of the brain than the rest of us.
There are many myths surrounding bilingualism, according to Cork-based speech and language therapist and UCC lecturer, Dr Ciara O'Toole.
"One myth is that young bilingual kids have less words than monolingual kids of the same age. While they may have less words in one language, chances are that when you add their two languages together, they'll have as many words if not more."
Young bilingual children are often sent for speech therapy because parents worry when they hear them mix two languages.
"This causes no problems for children so it shouldn't cause alarm," she says. "They grow out of it.
"Kids wait until such time as they've had enough exposure to the language to enable them to speak it, and then they do. That's only natural, yet many are referred to speech therapists because of it."
This was confirmed to me by a mum who told me her children, who have been raised since birth to speak English and French, were slower to start talking than most monolingual kids.
"The eldest said his first words when he was three, the youngest when he was four-and-a-half," she says. "Their father was most concerned, as were their teachers, but I thought it only natural that because they were assimilating two languages it would take them longer to start talking. I was right.
"Once they began, they progressed rapidly and soon caught up with their classmates."
Dr Lorna Carson, from the Centre for Language and Communication Studies, Trinity College, says it's quite normal for bilingual teens to go through a silent phase in relation to the second language.
"When that happens, parents shouldn't be critical, nor should they put pressure on them to speak the language against their will," she says. "It's common for teens to reject a minority language and to argue that it's of no long-term benefit to them. Usually this attitude changes over time, so parents should view the task of raising their children to be bilingual as a long journey, which can sometimes be slow."
As to when parents planning to raise bilingual kids should get started, the general consensus is that they should begin as soon as possible.
"The younger kids are, the easier it is for them," says Dr O'Toole. "Under three is the best time to start, but if that's not possible then under 12 is the next watershed.
"After that, while it's more difficult for them to get the accent and pronunciation right, it's never too late to begin."
Dr Charmian Kenner, lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Becoming Biliterate: Young Children Learning Different Writing Systems, says: "Tots are wired to learn any number of languages that come their way, and the best time to begin teaching them is as soon as they begin to babble.
"Because they're at a very flexible stage of brain development their potential to learn a number of languages and writing systems is at its highest."
How they should go about it depends on whether the parents are bilingual or not.
"In families where parents have two languages between them, many find it useful to adopt the 'one parent, one language' approach, where each speaks their native language to the child," she says.
"If neither parent is bilingual, they may go with their little ones to playgroups where they can mingle with others who speak the language. They may also use DVDs, books, songs and the internet to facilitate the learning process. Some even decide to learn the second language along with their kids."
School is an environment in which many children struggle with language. English reigns supreme in most, and bilingual pupils often get the impression there'll be no support there for their efforts to maintain a second language.
"To counteract this, parents sometimes set up after-school classes where groups of children can spend time together absorbing and speaking the second language," says Dr Kenner.
"No matter which strategy they adopt, making the learning fun is the very essence of success in raising kids to be bilingual. Parents should immerse their kids in the language through the medium of their favourite activities.
"If they like cartoons, they could watch them in the second language. Teens, meanwhile, can be encouraged to pursue a hobby and to text and engage in internet chat with friends who speak that language."
Dr Isabelle O'Neill, of Bilingual Forum Ireland, says that the organisation supports parents and teachers of bilingual children.
"As they get older, they understand the advantages they have, but in the early days, how they feel about being bilingual depends largely on the reaction they get at school and from their peers," she says.
One who is doubtless the envy of many of her peers is bestselling author Sinead Moriarty, whose latest novel, Pieces of My Heart (Penguin), is published next month. She was sent to the French school (Lycee Francais d'Irlande) at the age of four.
"Every subject was taught through French and when I first started, I didn't understand a word of what was being said. It was a baptism of fire.
"Thankfully, I soon got the hang of it, but even so, I wouldn't speak French at home. My mother, who is fluent in the language, tried her best to get my sister and I to do so, but we simply wouldn't. I think our mum was a trailblazer to send us to the French school, and I will always be grateful to her for giving us such a wonderful start in life.
"I want to give my two sons that advantage, so they're now attending my old school, where they're being taught by the same wonderful teacher I had all those years ago."
Zuzia Whelan (17), lives in Dalkey, south Dublin. Her mum is Polish, her dad is Irish. "My parents assumed I would speak both English and Polish, so they spoke to me in both languages from the earliest age.
"Shortly after we moved to Ireland I started school, and because I was immersed in English there, my Polish deteriorated a little initially. I remember switching between languages quite a lot when I was younger. That seemed quite natural and didn't cause confusion.
"Being fluent in English and Polish has helped with my studies in French. I think it will also be a help to me later on, if I pursue a career in journalism or international relations, as there seems to be a growing demand for job applicants who speak at least two languages.
"It'll also be an asset when I travel, and I plan to do lots of that.
"I come from two different cultures and believe it's to my parents' credit that I now speak both their native languages. Thanks to them, each time I visit Poland, I feel as though it's my other home. Because I speak the language, I don't feel as though I am outsider, which of course I'm not."
Siobhan O'Carroll lives in Leopardstown, Dublin, with her Japanese husband, Yoshio Miyachi, and their sons Ronan (12) and Sean (nine). Siobhan is a Japanese teacher, and Yoshio is a sushi chef.
"We moved to Ireland when Sean was two-and-a-half. Until then, Yoshio spoke only Japanese to our sons and I spoke only English. In his early days of attending school in Ireland, Ronan got help with his English from a remedial teacher, but he soon caught up and now he's flying.
"Many families drop their native language in the mistaken belief that it's less cool than English. The mother's influence is central.
"In our house, both Yoshio and I throw ourselves wholeheartedly and passionately into ensuring our sons keep up their Japanese.
"When the four of us are together we speak Japanese all the time. The boys attend Japanese school on Saturdays and visit Yoshio's family in Japan every year. Our determination is the secret of our success."