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Raising a polyglot: How to support your child’s language learning

Raising a polyglot: How to support your child’s language learning

Raising a polyglot — a child who is fluent in multiple languages — requires intentional and consistent support from parents. If you and your partner have different native languages, you may want to teach your child both languages. This is known as the OPOL method (one parent, one language). 

It is certainly a great help, but you don’t have to speak multiple languages at home to teach your child another language. Start by instilling in them your belief that knowing several languages is important, beneficial, and fun too. After that, follow the tips in this article to help support your child’s language learning journey at any age.

Start as young as possible

Young children have brains like sponges, making it easier for them to pick up another language. Psychologist Eric Lenneberg argued that “there is a critical, biologically determined period of language acquisition between the ages of 2 and 12”. Between these ages, the brain's plasticity makes it easier to acquire language.

“Young children are much more intuitive language learners than older learners, and generally attain higher levels of proficiency than those who begin as adolescents or adults,” wrote the University of Melbourne report ‘Promoting the benefits of language learning’.

It’s not just language skills they can acquire early; many early second language programs highlight both the linguistic and affective benefits of starting young. For example, a European language policy document from the Commission of the European Communities emphasizes the benefits of early language learning as ‘attitudes towards other languages and cultures are formed, and the foundations for later learning are laid’.

Give them a reason 

While it may be easier to learn a foreign language as a child, that’s not to say it’s easy. As linguist Danae Perez, PhD wrote, “It’s important to acknowledge that languages are never learned without any effort, not even by children.”

Children know they need language to communicate with their caregivers, peers, and teachers. So, in order to start speaking a new language, a child needs a reason, or a trigger to spark their interest in using the language. This might be to communicate with a family member who only speaks the target language, at school, or in a playgroup. 

As Perez says, “If you want your child to become multilingual, ensure they have a reason to learn more than one language.”

Create a language-rich environment

If you live in a multilingual society (like Switzerland, India, or Singapore, for example), exposing your child to multiple languages can be done with relative ease. However, if you live in a monolingual society, you will need to be more intentional. For young children, music and books are the best and easiest ways to introduce multiple languages, especially if you are not multilingual yourself. 

You could read bedtime stories in a second language (or play audiobooks if you can’t speak that language) listen to music, nursery rhymes, play games, and watch TV shows or movies in the target language. 

Additionally, consider enrolling them in a language playgroup or school, and find a language exchange partner, tutor, nanny, or babysitter who can speak to your child regularly. Modelling the language will help them pick it up much quicker.

Maintain consistency

Consistency is key. If you are using the OPOL method, try as much as possible to get each parent to stick to their language. Hiring a nanny to speak to your child two hours a week may teach them a few words, but it won’t get them fluent. Nor will reading the occasional book. It takes regular and consistent exposure and reward. 

Another option might be to enroll your child in a bilingual school or preschool. Many countries offer programs where children are educated in two languages in a 50/50 split.

Support learning in context

Once your child gets a little older, you might want to consider sending them on a study abroad trip to immerse them in the cultural context of the language they’re learning. 

This could be a language course abroad, a summer camp in a different country, or an extended family holiday. These options are all great ways to give your child ample exposure and practice while enjoying a fun holiday and expanding their worldview. Read more about how to prepare for their first language trip.

Learning another language offers insights into other cultures and ways of relating to the world in a unique way. “A language and its cultures are inextricably linked. When we learn another language, we are learning not only the words used by speakers of that language to designate everyday objects and ideas, but we gain insights into other ways of thinking about and relating to the world,” wrote the Benefits of Language Learning report.

Try to be patient

Everyone learns at a different pace so try to be patient and understand that every little bit helps. As long as you continue to keep language learning fun and interesting, your child will make progress. You might even want to celebrate that progress by doing something fun together such as making a special recipe or taking part in a cultural festival.

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