From the mouths of bilingual babes

Babies’ brains are primed for learning language from birth

 
 

Maria Pilar Clark

 

Storytime in the Vladisavljevich house on the southwest side of Chicago sounds a little different than in most homes. Twenty-two-month-old Sara gets to hear all her stories twice—once in Serbian from dad Petar and then in English from mom Sandra. These "double" readings have already helped Sara’s verbal abilities.

"Our daughter knows easily 200 to 300 objects, body parts … and can say them in both languages," Petar says.

While the Vladisavljevich family uses two languages as part of their cultural background, parents have many different reasons for teaching their wee ones a second language.

All ears

Making the decision to raise a bilingual baby is not an easy one, and it brings along a stroller-full of daily challenges. But, much like first-time parents who relish in their baby’s firsts, parents who want to introduce a foreign language into the home ultimately have a lot to look forward to, says Jenniffer Schaible, a speech language pathologist for Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital.

"In today’s diverse communities, being bilingual will allow children to communicate with a larger variety of people, especially those of culturally diverse backgrounds," she says.

Preserving a family’s heritage, observing cultural traditions and mastering a mother tongue also top a parent’s to-do list as they’re faced with the open minds and ears of their young ones.

Petar agrees, and he says "kids are ‘sponges’ at a young age, so we are taking advantage of it."

Outside of storytime, Petar speaks to Sara exclusively in Serbian along with her baba (grandmother). Sandra includes English in the family’s daily routine, and both parents teach Sara basic vocabulary and simple phrases using both languages.

Louisa Conway wants to give her children—Jet, 2 1/2, and Kai, 4 1/2—strong lifelong advantages and also share with them an important part of her Chinese culture.

"Both my husband and I agree that our children should learn … and the only way to learn it is to understand the language," says the Hoffman Estates mom. "In addition, we feel that it will help them in the future."

To make learning fun, Conway engages her children through Chinese songs and vocabulary lessons, and since her husband doesn’t speak Chinese, he takes charge of English.

"It’ll be easier to pick up new languages and may provide them with more options down the road," she says. "For me, the most important part is for them to understand their heritage."

In the future, the Conways agree that sending both kids to Chinese language school once a week will benefit them long-term.

Hinsdale mom Susan Driscoll "loves knowing a second language" and agrees that language schools can provide a strong learning platform. Her children—Dominic, 9, Anna, 4, and Isabella, 3—are enrolled in a Language All Stars program in order to reinforce the Italian she regularly speaks at home.

Baby talk

Parents can introduce their newborn bundle of joy to two languages or more from birth, since the earlier a child is exposed to a new language the faster he absorbs it. While schooling them in another language takes dedication, the end result is immensely rewarding.

"I need to consciously make an effort from the minute I wake them up to speak Italian," Driscoll says. "It’s hard when it’s just me by myself."

In order to keep her children interested in Italian, Driscoll keeps a collection of Italian music CDs in the car and reminds their nonno (grandfather) to talk to the kids in only Italian.

Moreover, since Driscoll is the only member of the parenting team who speaks Italian, remembering to practice day in and day out can be difficult. She notes that at some point or another parents lose that "coolness factor" and getting kids to speak what they perceive to be their "parent’s language" can become a struggle.

"My brother has not taught his two girls to speak Italian, so it’s hard at family gatherings because I tend not to use my Italian so they don’t feel excluded," Driscoll says. "The other challenge is that my son gets a little embarrassed if I try and speak in front of his friends."

The Vladisavljevich family also has encountered obstacles now that their daughter predominantly speaks Serbian.

"Her initial communication with people who do not know the Serbian language is hard because her first words are in Serbian," Vladisavljevich says.

Though obstacles and challenges can build up, looking past them in order to focus on accomplishments—no matter how big or how small—validates the effort.

"Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to speak more than one language, it impacts your child positively in the sense of self-esteem, future job opportunities and ability to live and travel abroad," says Swedish-born Christina Bosemark, founder of the San Francisco-based Multilingual Children’s Association, www.multilingualchildren.org, and mother of two. "Additionally, countless studies show that both analytical, social and literacy skills are improved when growing up with several languages."

After all, the proof as they say, is in the baby’s pudding, and instilling a love of languages can make for a well-rounded child. Noticing the little things helps, too.

"When we go to Italy, after a few days of being there and being immersed in the culture, my son starts using the [Italian] hands and the voice inflections," Driscoll says.

English is falling into place at the Vladisavljevichs’, too, and as Sara begins combining it with Serbian, Petar reflects on her ability to fit into the family’s culture.

"One huge benefit to knowing two languages is that at church or other functions where the Serbian language is spoken, she will be able to communicate," he says. "Also, my family only speaks Serbian, so when we visit, she will be able to blend right in, just like I was able to when I was a child."

For those who aren’t sure how to raise a bilingual baby, Bosemark advises parents to just start.

"The more interaction she gets in the different languages the better," she says. "In the end, multilingual children learn exactly the same way as monolinguals, they just assimilate more than one language."

It’s also OK for parents to introduce more than one language at a time, but experts recommend that only one language be used per sentence or conversation. According to Schaible, doing this will help children learn the correct word order and grammatical forms for each language.

"The use of books, songs and nursery rhymes in different languages are great ways to introduce or expose children to new languages," she says. "Also, finding play groups that are bilingual will help children generalize the two languages outside of the home."

Bosemark observes that going bilingual is a growing trend, with six times as many children born into multilingual families each year as there are twins born.

"I often compare raising bilinguals to raising twins—not dramatically different from regular parenting—but most definitely with its own quirks that the uninitiated wouldn’t think of," she says.

 

It’s an ongoing family fiesta for 10-month-old William at the Clark casa in Clarendon Hills, where his papá, Chilean-born mom Pilar and abuelitos join in to flavor his world with Spanish.

 
 







 
 
 
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