As someone who may possibly acclaim as bilingual, I never forget the frustration I grew up in learning a second language—English—in a non-native language environment.
English is so different from Mandarin Chinese in many ways, such as grammar, intonation, pronunciation, and writing. Plus, traditional English teaching in China focused on knowledge giving rather than developing effective communication skills in using this language.
No wonder after studying English for so many years, sometimes I still feel frustrated of not being able to express myself and not being able to make myself clearly understood (I hope you understand what I am saying in this blog).
Therefore, when I was pregnant with DD for just one month, I already thought about helping her acquire a second language, rather than learning it. (see the difference of acquiring a language and learning a language in How children acquire second languages?)
Here is how I help her acquire a second language. Of course, in her case, the second language is Chinese, since she grows up in an English environment.
Beginning my 15th week of gestation, the fourth month, when the eardrums and the bones of the middle ear are formed, I began to chat with her in Chinese, read Chinese poems and stories to her, and listened to Chinese song with her. The purpose of this so-called prenatal/fetal education is not to “educate”—teach facts or impart information, but rather to “interact”, or “make contact”, a head start on the long process of parent-baby bonding, with the mother’s positive experience (mood, thoughts, speech and actions). (see Fetal education in 4th month)
After her birth, I followed my own advice on how to help babies acquire languages. First, I spoke Chinese to her in a way that helps her learn faster, namely, baby talk (or “motherese”), which features a slower word delivery, a higher fundamental frequency, greater pitch variation, longer pauses, exaggerated intonation contour, and simpler and shorter sentence structure (see How to help babies acquire languages? (Method 1).
Then, I tried to create a Chinese-rich environment for DD (see How to help babies acquire languages? (Method 2). Since I am the only person who speaks Chinese in her world, I tried to speak only Chinese to her. Personally, I don’t think having a conversation with baby sounds silly. And I think treating DD as an intelligent individual and talk with her using adult language is a great way to encourage her language skills.
I named the objects around her (e.g. fruit, vegetables, bottle, table, chair, radio, lamps, phone, refrigerator, microwave and so on) and described their specific functions (e.g. apple is good for your health, chair is for sitting, phone is for communication, refrigerator is for food storage).
I told DD the Chinese words for each part of her body, such as eyes, ears, nose, mouth, hands, fingers, back, tummy and etc. And I combined it with the concept of numbers. I presented her the fingers and toes and told her “We all have two hands. There are five fingers on each hand. So there are ten fingers all together. We all have two feet. There are five toes on each foot. So there are ten toes all together.”
I demonstrated actions that go with words, for instance, saying “bye-bye” and waving or saying “welcome” and clapping hands, so she learned to identify key words and phrases. In addition, I pointed myself and say “mama” when she’s looking at me and told her “dada is back” when Daddy walked into the room.
I also run a commentary as I went about my daily routines. After I brushed my teeth, I explained to her why it was good do so at least twice a day. When I had breakfast, I described to her the importance of having breakfast to health and work. When M and I went to the local grocery store, M informed her the route and I announced to her the items on my shopping list.
When I talk to her, I deliberately and consistently expose her to the correct use of the same words in many different linguistic contexts (see How to help babies acquire languages? (Method 3). For example, when I made phone calls, I turned on the speaker phone so that she could hear the conversation between me and M. I told her “This is telephone. It is a communication tool that enables people to talk when they are in different places. With telephone, mommy can talk to daddy even he is not here. Listen, daddy is talking to you. Say ‘hi’ to daddy.”
At the same time, I also encouraged her to actively engage in interaction (How to help babies acquire languages? (Method 4)). Of course, at her age, she couldn’t talk back. I asked her questions like “how does this animal talk?”, “what is this?”, or “what are you eating?” For an instance, I showed her a picture of a dog and said, “This is a sheep. Do you how a sheep talk? The sheep says ‘baaa’”, or “This is a cat. Can you tell me how a cat talks? Yes, the cat talks like this ‘miaow’”.
When she was nine month, I began to read simple books to her in Chinese. These books enabled her to touch and feel different textures. Some contain shiny foil to capture her attention. These books taught her colors, shapes, counting and animals.
Since month 13, I started to read story books to her in Chinese. We also listened to Chinese children songs, rhymes and stories via CDs, and watched Chinese animated movies via DVDs.
No doubt, at month 17, DD could understand both languages, English and Chinese. It seemed that she didn’t need time to translate English to Chinese or vice versa in her mind. She is acquiring both languages as her mother tongues. The next step is to coordinate her lips, tongue and breath well enough to make herself understandable. This is also the biggest challenge and milestone in her language development.
Since month 21, DD began to speak Chinese words. The first Chinese word came out of her mouth, of course, was mama. The next were nainai (grandma in Chinese) and yeye (grandpa in Chinese) (see How to say grandma and grandpa in Chinese?).
Currently, it seemed she spoke more English words than Chinese words, although she could understand almost anything I said and followed my Chinese instructions without any problem. (Why she spoke more English than Chinese will be discussed in the next post)
Through the journey to help DD acquire Chinese as a second language in an English environment, I enjoyed the fun and joy of communicating with my baby, as part of the long process of building a compassionate parent-child relationship. I also realized the value of passion, patience and persistence in making anything happen and successful.
What I learn and what DD learns from our common exploration will bring us lifetime benefits. The most important thing is, we have a good time together. And that experience is priceless.
How babies acquire languages?
Stages of baby’s language acquisition
How children acquire second languages?
Stages of children’s second language acquisition
Never too early to learn second tongue
Being bilingual boosts brain power
Bilingualism and cognitive development
More resources on bilingualism and its effects
Why my baby isn’t talking yet?
More from parenting