Those of you who know me or have seen my profile on the BabyNatal website probably already know that I am a proud Italian. I am also a proud Mamma of two British PakItalian (or ItaliStani?) boys and face the everyday challenge, known to many families in London and across the UK, of raising children outside my country of origin, immersed in a language and culture which is not the one I was brought up in.
Over the years, and certainly since having my children, I have met and surrounded myself with a lot of families in a similar situation to ours, and I’ve noticed that a lot of parents would love for their children to speak their ‘home language’ but are just unsure as to how to go about it. For me, it was really important that my children could speak Italian otherwise they just wouldn’t be able to communicate with my family, and that just didn’t sit right with me.
So, armed with strong motivation and a real passion for languages and linguistics (that is my background after all), I’ve been researching this subject for years, and in true BabyNatal spirit I’ve decided to share some of the things I’ve learnt along the way. I hope this may be useful to some of you!
When do you start speaking your first language to your child?
You can start before your child is even born! When still in the womb your baby can hear your voice and become familiar with the pattern of the language that you speak. When your baby is born they will recognise the sounds of your language and be reassured by it. If you think about it, by the time your baby starts to say their first words they will have had months (if not over a year, when you consider the time in the womb) of practice listening to you. Although they won’t understand you at first, through repetition they will soon start to associate sounds and words to objects and actions. Your baby will need to do this anyway – learning how to communicate is a natural key step in their development, so being exposed to one, two or three languages won’t make this process any harder for them. A child develops language skills very rapidly – they quickly absorb whatever they hear, and they can learn to understand new words in two or more different languages at an incredible fast rate. Their little developing brains truly are amazing!
Don’t teach, just talk!
People are very often surprised by the fact that I’ve actually managed to teach my children Italian. Well, if I’m honest, I never feel that I’m teaching them Italian! We talk. We play with cars, trains and dinosaurs, and we talk. We drive in the car, and we talk. We go about our daily things, and we talk. And while we talk I give them ‘labels’ for things, actions, and feelings, and they take these words in and make them theirs. Then they go to nursery, or spend time with Dad or with Dad’s side of the family, and of course they talk some more and are given some more labels for those same things, actions and feelings. This time the words are in English (or in Urdu!), and the boys make those words theirs too. And while we do all that talking, they also learn about how sentences are put together, they learn in which order the words go, and they learn about intonation. The reason why it’s easy and effortless for them is because they do it all subconsciously.
We (the parents) probably think back about the time when we sat in school trying to translate a sentence into or from a foreign language word by word, trying to remember what each word meant (I won’t tell you about my miserably failed attempt to learn German!), but for a small baby or toddler the effort they put into learning a second (or third) language really is the same they put into learning one – it’s a completely natural step!
Confusion? What confusion?
One of the main worries parents have is that the children may get confused if you speak two or more different languages to them – will they mix the languages? Will they know which language they need to speak to whom and where? Yes, they will mix the languages initially, to a certain extent. Up until the age of 3 (approximately) they will probably pick and mix words in different languages, depending on what word they find the easiest, but somewhere between the age of 3 and 4 they will be able to consciously distinguish between the languages they hear and understand when to use them.
Another cause of concern for parents is that their children may fall behind their peers when they go to school. Of course if your child hasn’t heard a word of English by the time they start school (which is very unlikely if you and your family live in the UK), they may experience a slight delay, but they will very soon catch up with their peers.
In fact, by choosing to speak to your children in your ‘home language’ from birth, you’re making it a little easier for them to learn different languages later on in life. Research shows that we are all born with the ability to reproduce any sound from any language, but within the first few months of life unfamiliar sounds become harder to recognise and, later on, to reproduce. We simply ‘tune out’ sounds we don’t hear frequently. So, amazingly, a baby who is exposed to more than one language during their first few months of life can retain the ability to recognise sounds from ALL the languages they hear. This explains why speaking different languages to babies can really help them learn new languages later in life. If you think about it, you’re not just giving your child access to your native language and culture, but you’re also making their life a little easier when they get older!
And if you’re reading this and you don’t speak a foreign language yourself, you still have the option to expose your child to sounds of different languages through children’s songs, TV programmes, educational toys, friends, a nanny or child minder etc. The ability to hear different pronunciations is apparently sharper before the age of 3, so whatever exposure to ‘foreign sounds’ you choose to give to your child can really make their learning process a little easier later on in life. Plus, research also shows that bilinguals tend to be more creative thinkers because their brain functions stay sharper as they age. Whether that’s true or not, why not giving it a go?
‘One person, one language’ or ‘one place, one language’
If you want your little one to learn how to speak yours or your partner’s first language (or both!) the key is to be consistent. If you mix languages, your child will mirror you, and effectively mix languages too – and that’s ok if that’s your goal! If you always speak one language to your child, no matter where you are and who you’re with, your child will know that when they’re talking to you, they’re speaking in a certain way. When they’re little, they won’t even know that they speaking different languages. All they know is that there’s a certain way to speak to their Mummy or Daddy, which could be different from the way they speak to their nursery carers, grandparents or child minder, for example. What also works is to create an association between the language and a certain place or situation or activity, so that your child knows that when at home or doing something specific a certain language is spoken, whilst English is the way we speak when we’re out and about, in the park or at the Children’s Centre, for example.
So take the foot of the brakes and just talk! If you want to, you can get all sort of material (books, toys, CDs, DVDs etc.) in your native language and read, play and listen to the songs and stories together. I appreciate that it’s not always easy to get your hands on these kinds of resources, but you can still talk about what you see and what you do. You can sing the nursery rhymes that you remember from your own childhood, and you can even get creative with the books you have. Even if the books are not in your first language you can still describe the pictures in your own words or translate on the go – after all, until your child can actually read they won’t know you’re not actually reading what’s on the page. You can even make your own books! If you have access to a printer you can print out some photos or pictures and add a few easy words or sentences to describe them and talk through them with your child – it could be some family photos or photos from a holiday or a family day out.
If you or your parents are from a different country, whether they live in the UK or not, make sure that they speak to your children in their language and not in English. It’s their first language after all, and even if they’ve lived in the UK for a long time, they probably still speak their first language a lot better than they speak English, simply because it’s the language they first learnt as children. So make use of that, and don’t be scared of confusing your children – even if they just end up understanding the language but not speaking it, there is still a lot of benefit there isn’t there?
I hope this makes you feel a little less worried about confusing your children and makes you reflect on the great gift that you’re giving them instead. If you have any tips, advice, stories or similar experiences to share, we’d love to hear them!
Sara is a mum of two and BabyNatal teacher for West London.
Find out more about Sara on our main website here.