Teaching a baby to speak one language, let alone a second or a third one, can seem daunting enough. I’ll never forget my shock in hearing some mothers rattle off how many books we were expected to read to our babies from birth (in vitro, if possible).
Arming myself with a range of touch-and-feel, black and white, and nursery rhyme titles, I felt ready to tackle the challenge. Speech pathologists and paediatricians agree that a child’s early introduction to reading assists with language skills.
But what about teaching a second language to your bub? Is this a good idea to start early too, or will it just confuse them?
“There is no reason why children should not be exposed to language at birth, be it a first or second or third language,” explains University of Sydney senior lecturer Dr Natalie Munro, a speech pathologist.
It is important that parents or grandparents, aunties and uncles and even siblings work out who will talk to the child in what language.
“Parents who speak more than one language offer their child a wonderful gift when they communicate their words, their tone, their love and their affection from birth. Being bilingual is a gift that starts at birth and lasts a lifetime.”
The benefits of bilingualism (or multilingualism) are well documented. From studies of bilingual children in Canada demonstrating its cognitive advantages, to its role in fostering creativity, to research linking it to higher test scores - not to mention its appeal on a CV - there are many reasons for parents to embark on this journey.
But there are a few things to consider first.
“The key is consistency,” stresses Dr Munro. “Consistency in terms of who speaks what language and in what context.
"That context can be as simple as what language is used during playtime, the language used during nappy changes, the language used during meal preparation time and the language used during dinner and bed time.
“It is important that parents or grandparents, aunties and uncles and even siblings work out who will talk to the child in what language.”
Also, Dr Munro says it’s common for bilingual children to acquire speech slightly more slowly than monolingual children, and that a child might ‘mix-up’ words, sounds and grammar rules of the two languages.
And the phrase “use it or lose it” is relevant here.
“Whoever is the communication partner, introducing a second language will work when the adult has consistent opportunities for communication. Obviously, the more frequent those opportunities, the better.”
The rules are different when considering introducing a second language after a first one has been established, otherwise known as successive or sequential acquisition, Dr Munro explains.
“We figured that since he only has English-speaking cousins and friends, he would pick English up easily later on."
Whereas with simultaneous acquisition (multiple languages from birth), the languages develop together, with sequential acquisition a ‘transfer’ occurs, where the experiences with the first language can be harnessed to grasp the second.
“This phenomenon stresses the importance that parents need to keep stimulating both languages when raising a child bilingual,” says Dr. Munro.
Researchers at The University of Sydney (in collaboration with the University of Wollongong and The Netherlands' Hanze University) are running a research project on bilingual children to explore possible differences in simultaneous and sequential language acquisition.
Sydney parents Shabana and Saidal Wardak had to decide which route to take before imparting their native tongue Dari on their eldest son, Gabriel.
“The strategy we decided to go with was to speak only Dari to Gabe,” tells Shabana. “We figured that since he only has English-speaking cousins and friends, he would pick English up easily later on. So I would translate all of his English books into Dari as I was reading them to him.”
Shabana and Saidal, whose families migrated to Australia from Afghanistan during the 1980s, tweaked their approach before long.
“We then changed our strategy and decided that Saidal would speak mainly Dari to Gabe and I would speak mainly English.
"This was because I would be out with Gabe a lot, speaking English to everyone around me, so we wanted him to be comfortable with English as well. I started to alternate between reading his books to him in English and Dari. So now he has books that he enjoys listening to in English and ones he likes the Dari version of.”
As many parents will attest to, teaching a second language comes with its challenges, and the Wardaks began second-guessing their method from fear of confusing their 15-month-old son. But upon consulting their speech pathologist, they were reassured.
“She said exposing him to both languages at the same time was the best way to do it at this age,” Shabana says.
“Although the only words he is saying at the moment are "dad", "mum", "bobba” (dad) and sometimes "hi", "bye" and "ta", he seems to understand everything we say in both languages. For example, when I recently asked for both a “kiss" and a "motch", he brought his mouth close to my face for each.”
Shabana and Saidal are following the same approach with their three-month-old son Isaac.
The Bicultural Support Program is aimed at supporting a child’s self-esteem about their cultural heritage and developing their home language skills through song, food, games and other culturally appropriate activities. Commonwealth funded, it has been run by the Ethnic Community Services Co-operative (ECSC) for Children Services Central for 35 years.
“Through the Bicultural Support Program, children are given the opportunity to maintain their home, language and culture in an early childhood setting, which is important to their ‘being, belonging, becoming’,” says Penny Costa, a consultant for the Bicultural Support Program.
It supports Children Services all over NSW with the help of 400 bilingual workers who represent over 110 different languages and cultures, including Indigenous and refugee backgrounds.
“However, all children benefit from learning a second language, as it increases their early exposure to other cultures and ways of being, which will allow them to become successful, inclusive and culturally competent adults.
“The research has proven that bilingual children have a higher executive brain function and we know that once they have acquired a foundation in language transfer skills, they can use them successfully in learning other languages later on. But it’s crucial that this learning occurs in the first five years of their life.”
Dr. Munro agrees that introducing a child to a language, or languages, before they start formal schooling is more beneficial.
For more information on The University of Sydney’s research program on bilingual children, contact Dr Hans Bogaardt, at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 02 9351 9334.